Things are getting nasty between Southern California neighbors. Fewer disputes end with a handshake across the fence; more end up in court.
There are already some celebrated cases. Madonna was dragged into court by an angry neighbor who insisted that she clip her hedges, and a judge ordered her to do it.
Rock star Axl Rose was accused of blasting his stereo and clubbing a neighbor with a wine bottle. Rose accused his fellow condo owner of being a groupie pest. Both neighbors won temporary restraining orders and agreed to avoid each other.
Then there are the quarrels, certainly no less fierce, in the neighborhoods populated by the rest of us.
In Irvine last year, a constantly barking dog sparked a dispute that peaked when a fed-up neighbor sneaked out and shot it dead.
In Long Beach, a long-running argument over a loud stereo ended last May with two neighbors dead and two brothers arrested on suspicion of murder.
A Costa Mesa feud between the Gamboni and Dolan families over a disputed back-yard right of way ended up in court with a judge describing them as the urban equivalent of the Hatfields and McCoys.
People responsible for refereeing such disputes have witnessed a booming business. The Los Angeles County Dispute Resolution Services program, a nonprofit arm of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., handled more than 6,000 cases representing all types of disputes between June, 1989, and June, 1990. The center handles court referrals and walk-in clients.
"It used to be that tenant-landlord disputes dominated, with neighbor-neighbor quarrels making up about 10% of our caseload," said executive director Lauren Burton. "Now, they run from 20% to 30%."
Litigation-happy Southern Californians, however, are finding courts among the least satisfactory routes for resolving disputes. The legal system, because of its adversarial nature, tends to make opposing parties even more angry at each other, experts say. Even if disputes are resolved, the two sides are no friendlier for the experience.
"It is unfortunate that the courts cannot resolve all the problems resulting from living in a modern, urban environment," wrote Orange County Superior Court Judge William F. McDonald, in an opinion that pleased neither the Gambonis nor the Dolans. "The courts cannot make the (two families) stop hating each other. . . . Somehow these people are going to have to learn to at least (peacefully) exist on adjoining properties."
While there are other places that sparring parties can go to resolve disputes, many refuse to pursue them. The Gambonis and Dolans, for example, were never able to sit down across a table from each other, even after the Orange County Human Relations Commission suggested that they mediate their squabble.
Chester Gamboni says he has had to mortgage his home to pay for legal fees. He lost a court ruling to Pat Dolan and is mulling an appeal.
"I had no idea this would come so far and cause so much damage to all of us," Gamboni said. "But I think we're both unwilling to back off now. I know I am."
The bickering between the two families began with disagreement over an easement, but over the years the dispute became a name-calling, racially tinged brawl. The Dolans accused the Gambonis of "constant harassment, almost daily surveillance and regular hang-up calls," according to court declarations. The Gambonis in turn accused the Dolans of injuring their dog, poisoning their trees and harassing the family out of prejudice against Latinos.
Social scientists say reasons for the rising number and intensity of disputes vary and include dismantling of once-solid neighborhood ties, ethnic conflicts, more tightly packed neighborhoods and less privacy.
"As we become more of a megatropolis, we lose the sense of . . . identity with our neighbors, a sense of ethnic (identity) and even the sense of many years together in a neighborhood that make problems easier to resolve," said Peter Robinson, associate director of the Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University.
Added Burton of the County Bar's dispute resolution service: "In urban communities the whole structure is set up for conflict where you have large apartment units and cheap construction that is not designed to give complete privacy. Plus you have very different lifestyles and cultures coming together in one space."
Indeed, many experts say shrinking boundaries have led to aggressive territoriality that makes friendly relations ever more difficult; in many ways we've begun acting like cornered animals.
Population numbers are telling: According to U.S. Census estimates, from 1980 to 1989, the population in Riverside County increased by 53%; in San Diego County by 30%; in Los Angeles County by 16% and in Orange County by 18%. Population density figures are even more striking.