How To Handle Neighbors From Hell

After waiting two years for the courts to resolve a boundary dispute with his neighbors in a suburban Chicago development, George Moser decided to take matters into his own hands. On May 7, he brought in a bulldozer to rip up a section of his neighbor's driveway that was built on his lot. According to a suit filed by Kenneth and Carla Pies, Moser shouted "keep on bulldozing," as Carla Pies screamed for the destruction to stop. The Pies are now seeking $1 million in punitive damages.

Neighbor disputes often have the distinctive flavor of bad comedy. But you won't find the parties involved laughing. "You start fighting with a neighbor, and it is like a marriage gone bad," says Bob Hauer, a personal-injury lawyer in Minneapolis. "But you can't divorce them because they live next door."

Small irritations, repeated over and over, can lead to increasing anger and violence, says Raymond Novaco, professor of psychology at the University of California at Irvine. The press is littered with horrifying tales of exaggerated responses to neighbors: On July 18, a Locust Valley (N.Y.) man stabbed to death the man who lived downstairs after complaining of a loud radio.

FEUDING OVER FIDO. But for people willing to do some legwork and be patient, there are civilized ways to resolve neighbor disputes. Everyone is entitled to "quiet enjoyment" of their home. There are laws in every city, town, and county to address problems that can arise between neighbors, says Cora Jordan, author of Neighbor Law ($14.95, Nolo Press, 800 992-6656). "Most of the laws are a lot stricter than we realize," she says.

Local ordinances are similar in many small towns and large cities. To deal with noise disputes, towns legislate decibel-level limits and quiet hours. Ordinances against blighted property can be invoked if your neighbor's yard is overgrown with weeds or filled with rusted auto parts.

Is a tree the source of conflict? You can't force your neighbor to chop it down, even if it blocks your view or threatens to topple over onto your house. But you can trim branches or roots that reach into your property as long as you don't destroy the tree. Zoning laws limit the size of home businesses in residential areas to keep traffic and noise from disturbing neighbors. Local laws may also regulate the height, location, appearance, and material of fences.

POSSESSION. Pets, one of the biggest causes of neighbor disputes, are restricted by kind, number, and behavior. Most towns have leash laws and an animal-control officer to force owners to control and care for their pets. Boundary disputes arise most often when one person starts using a strip of a neighbor's land. Experts say property rights are worth protecting, even if you're not currently using the land. It should be noted that in most states, if your adjoining neighbors control some of your land and show all signs of ownership, the court may hold that they "adversely possess" it after about 15 years, and now own it.

To check your local laws, call the appropriate government agency or the town clerk's office. Better yet, do some research at the public library or county law library so you can make a copy of the law. A librarian should be able to assist you.

A much more detailed list of rules and regulations may cover your dispute if you live in a co-op, condominium, or another "common-interest community." Sam Dolnick, president of a condo association in La Mesa, Calif., says homeowners' contractual obligations at his development include maintaining quiet hours after 11 p.m. on weekends and keeping pet ownership down to one cat or one dog--which can't weigh more than 20 pounds. "The trouble is, a lot of people don't read the governing documents before they buy," he says.

Unfortunately, determining that you are on the right side of the law may do little to resolve your dispute. "Basically, you are entitled to buy a home and live in it and not have the couple from hell live next door and ruin your life," says Hauer. "The problem is that once you get involved in all these legal issues, they may ruin your life anyway."

Be informal and diplomatic when you first approach your neighbors about a grievance, says Jordan: "In the majority of cases, the neighbor doesn't even realize there is a problem." If a casual approach fails, write your neighbors a formal letter, citing the ordinance they are violating and enclosing a copy. Consider having a lawyer draft the letter for extra impact.

TALK IT OUT. You can also try calling local authorities. These cases are very low priority, but the police may respond to neighbor disputes and attempt to mediate the situation. Code-enforcement officers should be on hand to deal with zoning or public-safety issues. But basically, says Jordan, "the law is on the books to aid you if you want to do something about it yourself."

You may have better luck with town officials if your entire neighborhood is calling for action. Talking to other neighbors about the issue can also have therapeutic benefits. "It validates your own reactions when you have support," Novaco says. "It can also help a person put things in perspective. You can test out to what extent you are reacting in an exaggerated way."

Only if all else fails should you sue. Not only is the process expensive, time-consuming, and emotionally draining, courts have also proven ineffective at dealing with these cases. Once the suit is over and one side is named the victor, you will still be neighbors. "It does very little in terms of actually improving the relationship," says Jon Weiss, executive director of the Center for Conflict Resolution in Chicago.

So before taking your neighbor to court, try mediation. Free dispute-resolution services intended to keep minor disputes from clogging courtrooms are available across the country. The American Bar Assn. directory lists 420 not-for-profit programs and hundreds of private practitioners who will mediate disputes for a fee. The ABA section of dispute resolution operates a resource center that offers basic advice as well as referrals to mediation services. Call 202 331-2258.

JOINT AGREEMENT. In cases where disputes are mediated, parties are able to come up with written agreements 80% to 90% of the time, says Prudence Keftner, associate director of the ABA dispute-resolution section. About 95% of the disputants abide by the agreements, she says, while judges' orders are complied with only about 40% of the time. "The point is that the two parties understand best what is right for them," she says. The drawback is that both parties must agree to go through the process. The great majority of mediated cases today are referred by the court when the dispute has already resulted in a misdemeanor charge, such as trespassing or assault. Only about 10% of the time will the other party submit to mediation when their neighbor approaches the center voluntarily, says Weiss.

For some people who aren't reasonable, says Jordan, "the only thing that works is to hit them in the pocket." If your neighbors have adopted the familiar "let 'em sue me" approach, go ahead and file. The cheapest way is to go to small-claims court, where you don't have to hire an attorney and claims are limited to a few thousand dollars. If others in your neighborhood join you, the claims can add up, providing strong incentive for your neighbor to comply with the law.

If filing a civil suit seems the only means for redress, be ready to show a lot of patience. Attorney Hauer has seen clients grow so angry and upset over an ongoing neighbor dispute that he has suggested they put the matter behind them and relocate. It's a better option than letting an uncooperative neighbor destroy your mental health.

         TALK TO YOUR NEIGHBORS Assume they don't know they are disturbing you and 
      would change their behavior if they did.
         CHECK THE LOCAL LAWS Do research at the public library, call the appropriate 
      town office, or check with your condominium or neighborhood association to make 
      sure you're on the right side of the law.
         WRITE YOUR NEIGHBORS A LETTER Describe the problem and enclose a copy of the 
      appropriate law. Consider having a lawyer draft the letter for added impact.
         CALL IN THE AUTHORITIES Although neighbor disputes are low priority, the 
      police or another town official might respond, warn the offenders, and issue 
         ORGANIZE THE NEIGHBORHOOD You will get better response from local 
      authorities if others are complaining, too.
         TRY MEDIATION Professional dispute-resolution services recommended by the 
      local court or bar association can keep you from wasting time and money in 
         SUE, IF YOU MUST Go to small-claims court or, for larger claims, to civil 
      court. Remember, judges hate these cases, costs can be high, and you'll still 
      live next door to the person.