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Settling Disputes Over the Fence

Before rushing off to court, try talking to your neighbor to resolve conflict

September 08, 2002|MICHELLE HOFMANN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From clucking rooster disturbance calls to lawn gnome vandalism, Don Graham has heard it all. But when it comes to neighbor disputes, the senior lead officer for the Los Angeles Police Department's Devonshire division said the real culprit is lack of communication.

"People are afraid of confrontation. Rather than talking with their neighbor about problems over a cup of coffee, one neighbor will cut down a tree," Graham said. "Then the other neighbor comes home and finds his tree has been cut down [and retaliates]. It goes back and forth when it never should have started."

Julie L. Bronson, an administrator for the Los Angeles Superior Court Alternative Dispute Resolution Program, one of L.A. County's 17 mediation services funded by the Dispute Resolution Programs Act of 1986, or DRPA, has seen many residential feuds escalate to irrational levels.

Bronson recalled a clash in which one tormented resident was arrested for assault and battery after drenching his neighbor with water from a garden hose during a fit of rage. Other incidents, she said, simply defy reason.

"I have seen cases where the neighbors got into a fight over who had the prettiest Christmas decorations," Bronson said, "and it was going through the court system."

The story is familiar to Graham, who has spent seven years with the LAPD. Although he sees neighbor squabbles escalate to violence, he said it is not unusual for patrol officers to respond to as many as half a dozen residential disturbance calls during an eight-hour shift.

"But if we have to assign detectives and follow-up investigators and put cops on jury trials every time someone bends the neck off a pink flamingo in somebody's yard, that's all we would be doing," he said.

If you don't want to move and can't build a moat around your flock of plastic flamingos, look for peaceful solutions and know the law, advised neighbor law expert Cora Jordan, author of "Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries & Noise" (Nolo; 2001).

For example, unless a local ordinance is in place, most California residents don't have a right to a view; a home's unsightly paint color is not usually cause for a lawsuit; a boundary tree belongs to both neighbors and can't be removed without an agreement; and if a neighbor's tree or roots encroach on your property line or pose a danger, the law usually allows the limbs or roots to be trimmed or removed.

Even with the law on your side, Michael Rapkin, an attorney with Rapkin & Gitlin in Woodland Hills, said you should make a request--not a demand--and expect your neighbor to respond with a complaint of his or her own.

Rather than sending a nasty letter or creating a potentially bigger problem by involving the police, Jordan said, residents should assume the person creating the nuisance doesn't know there is one.

"If your dog were barking all day when you were not home, you would want to know about it, right?" she said. "So approach them that way."

Engage your neighbor in a general conversation on neutral territory, such as a laundry room, lawn or sidewalk.

"Don't bang on somebody's door," Jordan said. "Everybody wants to defend their space, and they will get angry--no matter what the problem."

When rational talk fails, write a letter outlining the problem and suggest some solutions, or enlist the support of other homeowners.

"If something is bothering you, it is probably bothering someone else," she said. "It is very hard to complain, but there's safety in numbers."

Still, when there is no common ground in sight, Rapkin said, don't retreat; hire a lawyer to write a formal letter. "That usually works."

No matter what your approach, Jordan recommended keeping a documented log of the problem--including times, dates and severity--as a record for police or during court proceedings.

Rapkin, who specializes in community association law, said most residents have resolution tools at their disposal.

Apartment dwellers, for example, can look to their lease or rental agreement, which usually guarantees peaceful enjoyment of a residence, and the landlord for protection against a neighbor's annoying, unreasonable or illegal behavior.

Similarly, residents in homeowners associations often have a powerful resource in the board's covenants, conditions and restrictions, or CC&Rs, which are detailed rules about property maintenance, repairs and architectural standards adopted by the board and signed by each owner during the buying process.

Those who violate CC&Rs can be subject to formal warnings, injunctions, fines or legal action by the board.

Even without powerful allies waiting at the curb, residents are protected by state statutes (www.leginfo.ca.gov) and local laws and ordinances (www.spl.org/selectedsites/municode.html), which are available online and through county law and public libraries.

The codes cover animal regulations, blighted property, building and safety issues, noise, weeds, zoning and other related topics.

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