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"Neighborly Relations"

Neighborly RelationsWith the warm weather, many Americans enjoy outdoor activities, reacquainting themselves with backyards and patios. These activities sometimes result in disputes with neighbors. Now that you’re sitting on your deck again, you’ve noticed that your neighbor’s tree has a dead branch hanging precariously over your prized petunias. Or maybe the fifteen-year-old kid next door has taken up the drums this summer, and practices in the garage very loudly and very late. What can you do?

It is always best, if at all possible, to resolve disputes with your neighbors informally. Step one should be to discuss the problem with your neighbors. Maybe they don’t know about the dead branch threatening your garden, and perhaps the parents of the aspiring percussionist don’t realize how far the sound of his practicing carries. If things don’t change, you’ll want to know the applicable local ordinances and subdivision and municipal regulations. You can look in the municipal code (found online or at your local library or city hall or by contacting your local council representative).

You may be permitted to trim the tree branch threatening your petunias, with certain restrictions:

  • You may trim up to the boundary line only.
  • Unless the tree poses “imminent and grave harm” to you or your property, you need permission to enter the tree-owner’s property.
  • You may not cut down the whole tree.
  • You may not trim the tree in a way that will destroy it.

It is always best to notify the neighbor before pruning his or her tree. If the owner objects, offer reassurance that the job will be done professionally and responsibly. If the tree has already caused damage to your property, state law determines the scope of the owner’s liability. Liability generally depends on the extent of the damage.

The would-be drummer is likely addressed in your municipal code through limits to allowable decibel levels. Your local police may have a decibel machine that can measure the noise of the unnerving drum solos. Such measurement will be crucial should you need to proceed against your neighbor in court.

Be sure to check the details of any municipal noise ordinance. Many noise regulations are limited to certain “quiet times” when most people are asleep.
These quiet times generally start between 10:00 p.m. and midnight and last until 7:00 a.m. or 8:00 a.m. on weekdays, and sometimes later on weekends. Though the rules of politeness require the next-door musician to keep it down when asked, the laws may only require it between certain hours. If talking to your neighbor doesn’t resolve the problem, obtain a copy of the applicable ordinance and mail it, along with a letter of warning, alerting your neighbor that his or her actions are breaking the law. Be sure to keep a copy for yourself.

Wait a reasonable amount of time for your neighbor to comply with your request before advancing the dispute to the next level. If it is clear that the letter has not resolved the dispute, suggest mediation.

Mediators are trained to listen to both sides in a dispute, identify problems, and suggest compromises and equitable solutions. A mediator is an impartial third party who, unlike a judge in a courtroom setting, does not decide a winner and a loser, but rather strives to make both parties win. With a mediator, there can be no resolution until both parties agree, and the two sides are more likely to comply with the resolution, since both agree to it.

In the case of the would-be percussionist, your neighbor might be subject to prosecution as a nuisance. Nuisance is a legal term for a person’s unreasonable action that interferes with your enjoyment of your property. Your local ordinance may make nuisance a crime (usually a misdemeanor) or a civil violation. Whether criminal or civil, the city carries the burden of prosecuting a nuisance case.
Your role as the complaining neighbor is limited to testifying if the case goes to trial. Any money collected from the neighbor will be in the form of fines paid to the city, not damages to you.

Your lawyer can help you determine the best course of action in an extended dispute with your neighbor. If your lawyer is not a trained mediator, he or she will be able to help you find one. If mediation fails, or if your neighbor refuses to attend mediation with you, your lawyer can advise you on pursuing a civil lawsuit or filing a nuisance complaint with the city.

(Summer 2007)

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