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When a Bad Neighbor Is Illegal

NEIGHBOR LAW: First of six parts.

September 08, 1991|CORA JORDAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES. Cora Jordan is an attorney and the author of "Neighbor Law: Trees, Fences, Boundaries and Noise," published by Nolo Press, Berkeley, from which this article is adapted with permission. "Neighbor Law" is available in bookstores or by calling (800) 640-6656

For most of us, the word "neighbor" holds a nostalgic appeal. We long for the good old days, for simpler times, for safe streets and porch swings, for a setting when people were really neighborly. But with neighbors come problems, then and now. The Hatfields and McCoys, after all, were not products of the 1990s. However, the shrinking space of today's world exacerbates our problems, as does the transiency of society. Often we simply don't know our neighbors and are too busy and too tired to make the effort. Congestion and fear of crime tend to make us isolate ourselves. Also, our fast-moving age has made for shorter fuses and less tolerance among those in close confines. So now we have a new breed of laws and ordinances that attempt to regulate everything from barking dogs to the height of fences-neighbor law.

If your neighbor is doing something that is terribly annoying to you, the activity is probably against the law. Most everyday activity that could disturb a neighbor is regulated by city or county ordinances. Uncut weeds, dogs roaming at large, old cars up on blocks may all be illegal.

Here are a few of the topics most commonly covered in local laws.

Blighted property. This is property that has been allowed to fall into disrepair. Ordinances prohibit such property when it creates a danger to others or is such an eyesore that it reduces the value of surrounding property. An uncaring neighbor can be forced to repair the unsightly mess or face a fine.

Weeds, rubbish and garbage. Most cities prohibit high weeds, rubbish and garbage on property, and often lump them together in one ordinance. Communities may consider these health problems because they encourage breeding of insects and rodents or because they are fire hazards.

Animal problems. Most towns have several ordinances designed to deal with problems created by animals--or more accurately, by irresponsible animal owners.

--Number and kind of animals. Local ordinances often limit the number of certain pets allowed per household. These laws are designed to cut down on noise, odors and health problems. Someone who is determined to keep more animals than allowed may have to buy a special kennel license from the city.

Although dog and cat owners are most likely to be affected by these laws, they are not the only ones. Some ordinances also limit the number of ducks, pigeons and chickens on property within the city limits.

Other farm animals, such as pigs, hogs, goats and horses, are usually not allowed within the city limits. But in Albany, Calif., a property owner is allowed to keep one goat--for only a 60-day period--for weed control.

Special regulations may also cover beekeeping, both by requiring a permit and limiting the location of hives.

--Leash laws. Almost all towns have leash laws, requiring dogs to be under restraint when off the owner's property. Sometimes these are called "running at large" laws. If a neighbor reports the dog, the city can pick up and impound the animal and fine the owner.

--Pooper scooper laws. These laws require the owner of an animal to immediately remove an animal's dropping when the animal is away from the owner's premises.

Drug dealers. When someone sells illegal drugs, it is ordinarily a matter for the police and the district attorney's office to handle through criminal proceedings. But many police departments and prosecutors' offices are overburdened and unresponsive to citizens' complaints about neighborhood drug dealing.

Some frustrated neighbors have brought lawsuits in small claims court against owners of properties where drug dealing and other crimes flourish--and they have won. A number of small claims awards against the same person quickly add up.

Many cities have also passed laws that both make it easier for landlords to evict drug-dealing tenants and punish landlords who sit by while drug dealing goes on in their property.

In Los Angeles, for example, the police department can notify landlords when tenants are arrested or convicted for drug-related offenses. In Pasadena, a landlord who refuses to evict the tenants after a request from the city can be fined up to $5,000.

Local governments are also rigorously enforcing laws that allow them to sue landlords to have premises declared a public hazard or nuisance. In New York City and other places, owners have been fined and buildings have been closed down.

Landlords can even lose their property. Federal or local law enforcement authorities can take legal action to have housing used by drug dealers seized and turned over to the government--even if the owner's part in the crime is just to ignore it.

Residential-only zoning. In most residential areas, zoning laws allow only single-family dwellings. This means the investor who purchases property down the street and then turns it into an apartment house for partying college students may be violating the zoning laws.

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