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City Mediators Put Themselves in the Middle : Disputes: The staff members are trained to help residents communicate with each other to resolve conflicts.

August 15, 1991|AMY LOUISE KAZMIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For years, a neighbor's tree hung over the old man's driveway, dripping sap onto his car, damaging the paint.

"In a normal situation, he should have just walked over and spoken to his neighbor," said Sam Engel, administrator of the Neighborhood Services Section of Glendale's Department of Community Development.

But the old man was afraid. Although he had lived next door to the tree owner for years, the two never talked much and he felt uncomfortable broaching the subject of the sap-dripping tree. Instead, he called the city to complain.

Such quiet disputes have become more common in recent years, city officials said. Increasingly, people are afraid to confront their neighbors about problems such as lights shining in their bedrooms, offensive smells wafting into their homes or trees blocking their views. So they turn to the city.

"As the city gets more and more crowded, there are more and more things that people do that bother other people," Engel said.

Glendale's Neighborhood Services Section has responded by developing an informal neighbor mediation program to facilitate communication between residents and to resolve disputes. Five members of the section's staff have been trained in mediation and conflict resolution to help them in this task.

"People have become very alienated from their neighborhoods," Engel said. "When you walk around, you see homes completely surrounded by fences, like each property is a separate fortress. Our job is not to physically remove the fences but to emotionally break those fences down."

Those trained as mediators have other responsibilities. Two are building inspectors empowered to enforce the municipal code. The others are field representatives trained in city zoning laws.

Sometimes when mediators arrive to investigate a complaint, they discover a violation of the municipal code. Then they request that the responsible party rectify the situation, warning that failure to do so could result in criminal prosecution.

But often, the mediators find that there are no code violations. That's when mediation--generally a process of friendly persuasion--begins.

The first question a mediator generally asks is: "Have you talked to your neighbor about this problem?" About half the time, the answer is no, Engel said.

"We have found people who have lived next door to each other for 10 to 15 years and never spoke," Engel said.

Dan Peterson, one of the trained mediators, said, "People don't want to go outside their front doors because they are afraid of what might be next door. Everyone seems to think that everyone out there is their adversary, everyone is their enemy," he said. "It's easier if the city goes out there as the bad guy."

When Peterson encounters someone who is afraid to approach a neighbor, he will either do it for the person or "bring them both out into their yards and say, 'You two need to talk.' " Often, once made aware of a problem, a person is more than willing to try to correct it.

In the case of the man whose neighbor's tree dripped sap onto his car, Engel said, the tree owner readily agreed to trim the branches and said he was sorry that the man had not approached him sooner.

One elderly couple called the city because they were afraid to tell their neighbor, a professional musician, that his late afternoon drum practices were disturbing them.

When Peterson met with the drummer and discussed the problem, the drummer agreed to practice in a room farther from the couple's house. The drummer also added more insulation to muffle the sound.

But problems are not always resolved that easily.

Many times mediators find themselves in the middle of ongoing, acrimonious battles in which plenty of hostile communication has already occurred.

At such times, mediators sit down with the feuding sides and try to reach agreement on the specific issues of contention. The mediators will cite civil law that governs the issues so both sides understand the possible legal ramifications.

Peterson said that at the end of such sessions, he usually gives the "standard peaceful co-existence speech."

"I tell them, you are neighbors and you may need each other. You would like your neighbor to call the police if she sees your house being broken into," he said. "Nothing good can come from these neighbor wars."

Peterson made this technique work for Glendale residents Peggy and Ned Luce, who called the city because their neighbor's trees block their view of the city.

Twice before, the tree owner allowed the Luces to pay to have the trees trimmed, but the last time the owner was dissatisfied with the work and refused to let the Luces do it again.

The Luces turned to the city, and Peterson was sent to the site. All the parties sat down to talk and Peterson told the tree owner that according to civil law, he is responsible for any vegetation that encroaches on the Luces' property.

The tree owner then agreed to trim the trees. Peterson said he plans to check several times to be sure he complies.

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