Neighbors From Hell -- Dogs Bark, Music Blares, Tree Roots Invade - And Can Spark An All-Out War

Their kids are loud and unruly, their dog barks all night and their house is an eyesore. If you complain, it only makes matters worse. But there is hope for this all-too-common problem.

The 15-year feud between the Drinkward family of Redondo Beach, Calif., and the man next door started with an absurdly small incident.

One day, the Drinkwards say, their teenage son was washing their car and some soapy water ran onto the neighbor's lawn. An argument erupted. The next day, they recall, the neighbor painted a white line down the middle of the driveway and forbade the Drinkwards to cross it. (The neighbor declined to be interviewed for this story.) "I thought it was ridiculous," says Ann Drinkward. "I told my family to stay on our side of the line and the problem would go away."

But it didn't. When leaves from the Drinkwards' juniper trees fell into the neighbor's yard, Ann says, he'd dump them back on her property. And, when the Drinkwards built an addition onto their house, the neighbor reported them to the city for possible violation of building permits. "My husband had all the permits," says Ann. "He's a building inspector, for goodness' sake!"

Finally, two years ago, when communication from next door came only through registered mail, she'd had enough. In an effort to be friendly, she'd drop by with some fresh-baked cookies or a loaf of bread and chat with the neighbor. For a few months, all was well. But then, according to Ann, the neighbor revived the feud, threatening the Drinkwards with a lawsuit for property damage. The reason? Roots from the juniper trees had crossed onto his property.

From trivia to lawsuit

The American Bar Association estimates that neighborhood disputes now account for up to 45 percent of misdemeanor charges filed in U.S. courts each year. The complaints fall into three leading categories: vandalism from children and pets, boundary trees (for instance, a neighbor's maple blocking your view) and excessive noise. Other common charges stem from automobile parking, obnoxious odors and "spite" fences, legal terminology for high or ugly fences built specifically to annoy a neighbor.

As trivial as these irritations may seem, when they occur over and over they can spark all-out war. For instance, in Texas, after two boys damaged a neighbor's shrubs while playing ball, the neighbor tried to run them down with a car.

In one California town, a man was so enraged by persistent barking from his neighbor's dog that he taped shut the pet's mouth. The dog died, and the man now faces criminal charges for animal cruelty. In a Connecticut neighborhood, when a family refused to trim their messy weeping-willow tree, someone drilled holes in the tree's trunk and poisoned it.

What is it about neighbor disputes that sets otherwise rational people at each other's throats? The whole issue of home and neighborhood is emotionally charged, experts say. "Your house is supposed to be a haven from a hectic world, the place you can be king of your castle," says Cora Jordan, an attorney in Oxford, Miss., and author of "Neighbor Law (Nolo Press)."

Because of our neighbors' sheer proximity, we tend to react to them as extended family, according to Bob Hauer, a personal-injury lawyer who handles neighbor disputes in Minneapolis. "You never have a simple legal problem with an annoying neighbor," he says. "It's a lifestyle problem, a psychological problem. You start fighting with the folks next door, and it's like a marriage gone bad - except you can't divorce them."

When a neighbor problem arises, a person's first impulse is usually avoidance. "Either you can't risk insulting or offending them by bringing up a problem, or you feel helpless, like there is no feasible solution," says Arthur Toole, of the Institute for Mediation and Conflict Resolution, Inc., in New York City. "So you do nothing."

Lawsuits usually are a poor solution. "Lawsuits often just mask or neutralize the immediate problem, creating even larger power struggles," warns Mark Warda, an attorney in Clearwater, Fla., and author of "Neighbor vs. Neighbor; Legal Rights of Neighbors in Dispute" (Sphinx Publishing, 1991). "Courts hate neighbor lawsuits because the neighbors find something else to fight about."

What you can do

Experts say the most effective and satisfying way to solve neighbor disputes is to handle them yourself.

To begin with, be aware of your rights. When a neighbor does something so unreasonable that it constitutes a wrongful act or injury, he or she has broken "a nuisance law." These laws vary from community to community, but they are often very detailed. For instance, in Farmington, N.M., music played on private property is not allowed to exceed 50 decibels at night. Check your local laws at the town clerk's office or the public library. If you have legal grounds to complain, show your neighbor a copy of the ordinance.

Unfortunately, being on the right side of the law isn't always enough. To prevent the situation from turning into a battle, keep in mind that different types of neighbor problems call for different strategies:

1. Noise

Thirty-seven-year-old Barbara Solomon (name has been changed) of San Francisco owns a vacation home in Seattle, where her family "escapes for peace and quiet." But a year ago, her next-door neighbor leased his house to four men in their 20s who were in a rock band. Every night, Barbara and her husband were levitated out of their bed by the screech of guitars.

"When I complained," she recalls, "they just looked at me and said, `Noise? This is important music.' "

This reaction is very common, according to Dan Joyce, executive director of the Cleveland Mediation Center. "Don't assume your neighbor realizes he or she is even creating a nuisance," he says.

Also, remember that noise is subjective. "Judging or interpreting the other person's behavior only alienates them," says Debra Bass, communications vice president of the Community Associations Institute, an organization that represents condo and homeowner associations outside Washington, D.C. Instead, "give information about your own situation and feelings."

That's what Barbara did. When she explained that the band was keeping her family awake at night, they agreed to play only during the day with the windows closed. But eventually, the late-night jam sessions started up again.

At that point, Barbara presented the owner of the house next door with a petition signed by eight other neighbors. Within a month, the band moved out.

2. Kids and pets

Children and domestic animals have the greatest potential to tear a neighborhood apart. Take the case of Michael Rubin, a civil trial lawyer in North Hollywood, Calif., who has been embroiled in one of the most bitter neighbor lawsuits in the nation for the last few years.

In 1989, Rubin's neighbors, the Schilds, erected a basketball hoop for their son about 30 feet from Rubin's bedroom window. One day, "I was so exhausted from work, I had to take a nap," Rubin recalls.

"I asked the boy to stop playing basketball. He stopped, but then came out with his father and started (playing) again." Rubin grabbed a garden hose, and, according to a legal complaint filed by the Schilds, soaked the boy and his father.

The Schilds sued Rubin and petitioned the courts to grant a restraining order against the Rubin family. The Schilds also claimed the emotional distress was so intense that they needed therapy. Rubin countersued the Schilds.

According to Rubin, many of the lawsuits have now been thrown out of court, but the ugly feelings still abound.

What can neighbors do to avoid this legal and emotional warfare? In a case involving a neighbor's child, it pays to be especially careful. "Realize that people are hypersensitive and defensive about their kids," says attorney Mark Warda.

Instead of reacting in the heat of the moment, think about how you want to resolve the problem, and then calmly approach your neighbors.

3. Trees

From the perspective of nuisance law, trees are one of the trickiest neighbor problems to resolve. That's because they serve so many vital purposes to a homeowner.

They may be used for privacy, shade, fences, boundary markers or even food. So, in the case of a problem tree, be prepared to compromise.

That's something Evelyn King, (name has been changed) a 32-year-old housewife in Connecticut, wishes she had done. Every autumn, Evelyn collected the several bushels of apples that had dropped from her neighbor's trees into her yard, to make cider.

But last year, her neighbor approached her with a bill. "The tree belongs to me," he said. "If you want to use my apples, you have to pay for them."

The apple controversy raged on. Finally, Evelyn trimmed the apple-tree branches that hung over her property line. "My neighbor hired a tree consultant who claimed the trees were traumatized," she says.

Evelyn decided to build a high fence along her property line. "Now the neighbor calls me up to complain about the fence," she says. Even worse, the branches have started to grow back over her yard.

She could have avoided these troubles by making some concessions to her neighbor. For instance, she might have suggested that she'd be willing to allow the branches to hang over her property - and forgo the cider - if her neighbor would remove the apples that fell into her yard.

Declaring a truce

Unfortunately, some neighbors are not willing to be reasonable. Instead, they become threatening, even violent.

In such cases, the ideal solution may be to bring in a neutral third party to mediate. Community or volunteer mediators charge a nominal fee (usually a total of $5 to $20) to help both parties reach a compromise.

Suggest the idea to your uncooperative neighbor; if he refuses to participate, tell him your only other option is to call the police.

Neighbor mediation has become remarkably successful. The Dispute Resolution Section of the American Bar Association reports that more than a quarter-million neighbors underwent two-hour mediation sessions last year.

Of those, 80 percent reached a satisfactory written agreement. And 95 percent of mediated agreements are currently being complied with, more than twice the compliance rate of court-ordered resolutions.

Mediation helped Ann Drinkward and her neighbor finally solve their feud. "We found out information about each other that reduced the hostilities," says Ann. "I didn't realize (the neighbor) was lonely."

She promised to repair the damage her tree roots had caused. The neighbor, she says, agreed to come to her with complaints instead of taking irrational action.

Today, Ann feels emotionally entrenched in her neighborhood again. "I feel very secure now," she says. "I have my sense of belonging and place back."

(Copyright 1994, Mark Stuart Gill.) ----------------------------------------------------------------- TELL US YOUR STORIES

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