Turf wars: As the ground thaws, neighbourly conflicts heat up. Here’s how to cope

08. April 2016 All About Children 10

Around this time every year, here in the hyperborean hinterlands, we emerge from our domiciles, blinking and squinting, shading our eyes with our hands, gazing up at the sky, and we ask ourselves: “What is yon strange yellow orb? I feel like I’ve seen it before.”

It’s also the time of year, here at Damage Control HQ, we notice a decided uptick in neighbourly conflict. Coincidence? We think not. Collectively, our social skills rust over the winter months, and as we come out of quasi-hibernation, we tend to create or encounter friction with those living closest to us.

Not to worry. Friction is all part of the human condition. “Hell is other people,” opined the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Moreover, “April is the cruellest month” in the view of the poet T.S. Eliot (perhaps thinking about his neighbours). But we don’t go that far. Neither of these axioms need necessarily be axiomatic. It’s all how in you handle it. Whether you’re dealing with noisy neighbours or nosy parkers, the following six tips will keep over-the-fence relations as smooth as a water slide.

1. Foliage flare-ups

This appears to be the No. 1 cause of interneighbourly inconvenience. I know from personal experience. I had a neighbour (retired, irascible, curmudgeonly – okay, downright mean) who would practically stand with shears in hand and watch a vine grow millimetre by millimetre until it crept over his fence before zealously snipping it back.

People get a little crazy when it comes to protecting their properties and the flora thereupon, especially downtown, where I live, where property ownership is literally a game of inches. My counsel is to respect your neighbours’ madness – up to a point. De-escalate, but don’t be a doormat.

We received this question recently: “My neighbour isn’t happy because the tree in my backyard, while not encroaching on her property, is blocking the view from her bedroom window. Am I legally responsible for trimming the branches?”

To this question, and all of its ilk, I say, “Don’t worry about the legalities. If you have to take it to court, it’s already gone way too far.” Instead, work it out: negotiate. Use common sense.

In the case cited above, stand your ground. Remember the doormat. To trim a perfectly good tree because it blocks someone’s sightlines is simply going too far. This neighbour deserves a firm and polite “sorry, but no.”

In general, though, I try to err on the side of making peace. I had to cut down my beloved “Tree of Whizzdom” (so-called because dogs and naughty drunken friends would pee on it) when it was pushing up my neighbour’s garage. Even had to pay top dollar for the privilege. The tree is gone, I miss it, but better that than an acrimonious feud. These things can turn ugly.

2. Noisy neighbours.

Loud parties. Arguments you can hear through the wall or heavy-footed walking you hear through the ceiling of your condo. I’ve seen neighbours go to war over a dog that barks inside the house all day. Where does your right to rock on end and your neighbours’ right to quiet enjoyment of their property begin?

Again, I say let common sense and a spirit of peace-making prevail. When a teenage party at our house got out of control – and thanks to social media, these things can become truly frightening – our neighbours called the cops at the dot of 11. No hard feelings. I understood: It was “business, not personal.” (And a relief for both my wife and me, to be honest.)

As to garden-variety noise issues – people walking above, dogs barking on the other side of the wall, stereos on too loud – well, I know these can be like a slow-drip torture. Just don’t let it flare up into a fracas. Invite your neighbours over for a chardonnay and put it politely: “Hey, do you think you could [insert behaviour modification you’d like to see here]? That’d be great.”

3. Oh-so-superior sancti-neighbours

Is it just me? Maybe it’s the fact I’ve lived in the same neighbourhood 21 years, one that has rapidly gentrified: now all my neighbours are richer than me, and it seems like every time I exit the house everyone’s just getting back from the cottage, a ski trip or some island only rich people know about. And their kids are all doing more and better and, it seems, I suck. Example:

Me: “Nice day to walk the dog.”

Neighbour: “Ah, yes. Good old canis familiaris. Ha-ha, sorry to bust out the Latin like that but my little Joey is taking Latin in his gifted class, and it must’ve rubbed off.”

Which brings me to this question: “[Our neighbour] uses every play-date as a Trojan horse to invite herself over … and each visit is an opportunity to extract personal information, criticize my wife’s work commitments, question our kids’ extra-curricular activities [or lack thereof], or ask intrusive questions, sometimes in front of other parents.”

My advice: ignore, ignore, ignore. Rise above. It’s on them if they want to be all judgy and/or humble-braggy. It’s got nothing to do with you.

And if you see yourself in the above, if you’re the intrusive/critical Trojan popping out of a metaphorical horse, please stop. You’re killing everyone. Look in the mirror and ask yourself: “Why I gotta be like this?”

4. Nosy neighbours

Related to the above. Something I’ve never understood myself, but I’m told it is a thing. I’d pay good money not to know what goes on in my neighbours’ private lives, and to be protected from accidentally overhearing that information. But … people are curious. We even had a question not too long ago about neighbours who would come on the porch and peek in the window to see what was up.

That was just creepy, but in fact, it’s all part of the simian condition, the “hive mind.” In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, author Yuval Noah Harari reveals a big part of the reason sapiens prevailed over all the other homos (denisova, neanderthalensis, ergaster, rudolfensis, etc), even those who were stronger and hardier: gossip.

Yeah, you heard me. Our strength as a species is to organize and above all co-operate, even across continents. (Harari uses the somewhat odd example of nuclear weapons, which take tens of thousands of people across several continents to produce.) The key to doing that effectively is determining who is working out and who isn’t, which are the good and bad apples, and our best tool on that score, though it’s given a bad rap, is gossip.

So, I would say, accept that tongues will wag among your fellow sapiens, and comport yourself accordingly. Think of it this way, if you give them nothing to work with, they’ll move on to more interesting/colourful characters. Such as the neighbour who thinks no tree, anywhere, should block her view.

5. Mi backyard su backyard

They say “it takes a village” to raise kids, but we get a lot of questions to the effect of “Help! My neighbours exploit this village effect to fob their spoiled, out-of-control kids on me. What should I do?”

I’m tempted here to reveal my secret Shaolin-parenting-style “Reverse Fob,” but it’s strictly master-class stuff. Suffice to say, some little kid from down the block will ding-dong my doorbell and with little-urchin eyes say his dad sent him over to play with my kids and can he come in? And next thing Little-Urchin Eyes’ dad knows, all three of my kids are at his house for a play date.

I don’t think the world is ready yet for me to explain how this works. (Hint: It is easier to get forgiveness than permission.)

For now, let me merely say if a neighbour has fobbed his kid off on you, or in any situation in which someone else’s kid has penetrated the perimeter of your domicile, you are acting in loco parentis and have my permission to treat that kid as one of your own. If the kid’s parents don’t like it, they can send the kid to knock on someone else’s door.

6. When it actually goes right

Speaking of the village effect, there is a great book of that title by Montreal shrink/scribbler Susan Pinker. I’ve been recommending it to everyone. It’s subtitled How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier and Smarter. Pinker had gone to a little village in Sardinia where the men were living longer than normal and tried to get the men alone to ask them about their diets, exercise habits, etc., but was frustrated she could never get them alone – and then the light bulb went off. Maybe, she thought, the fact these old Sardinian duffers were never alone was their longevity secret. And in her book, she makes a persuasive case that face-to-face contact can stave off cancer, Alzheimer’s and all kinds of other ills – something we’d be wise to remember in this age of social-media/cellphone obsession (let’s face it, it’s like Invasion of The Body Snatchers out there, everyone staring at their phones).

So look at it this way: Maybe your neighbours are pills. But they’re potentially a health pill! Like family, you don’t choose them. Unlike family, you can’t really avoid them. So why not befriend them?

In the spirit of “keep your friends close and your enemies closer and you’re stuck with your neighbours anyway,” why not use the same technique as with the Noisy Neighbour? Invite them over, too, for a glass of chardonnay and a chat.

It’ll give them something to talk about, and even if it doesn’t actually make you happier in the moment, it just might give you that Sardinian edge.

Also on The Globe and Mail

B.C. community comes together to make repairs to elderly man’s fence
(CTVNews Video)

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

10 thoughts on “Turf wars: As the ground thaws, neighbourly conflicts heat up. Here’s how to cope”

  • 1
    Ursula Seawitch on March 25, 2016 Reply

    Good article DE! It’s nice to smile on a dreary day.
    We have lived in the same house for 20+ years. We keep to ourselves but help,out with fallen branches and snow removal as needed. We did get in trouble for some vines on the fence. We are taking them out.

  • 2
    Donalda Duck on March 26, 2016 Reply

    Within this list, I fully expected to see “dog doo” and “ciggie butts” on shared lawns mentioned. My neighbours have both a dog and smoke, while we don’t on either count. Nothing irks me more than this right of Spring. We try to be neighbourly picking up when it’s our fault, but they don’t make the effort. Too bad there’s a by-law against front lawn fencing for townhomes in Ottawa.

  • 3
    Hare on March 27, 2016 Reply

    Howard-Price does not guarantee good neighbours,and over stimulated ,from the kid next door doing body work on a car to noisy drunken parties,there are no guarantees.
    Mutual drive ways are a recipe for disaster, teenagers with over coddling Parents can make life hell,not to mention dogs that constantly bark.

  • 4
    Johngo1 on March 28, 2016 Reply

    I have been blessed to have great neighbours. Sure, I put up with barking dogs and an occasional rock concert, but really, I have my turn as well as an iPod. Peace over a fence is easily accomplished and common ground can always be found. If that fails there are plenty of hungry realtors ready to help you move on!

  • 5
    Letsbereasonable on March 29, 2016 Reply

    Rule of life: Much like work that expands to fill up the time at hand, small problems do expand. And fill up your mind. Some people have big problems in life, real big ones. The key to happiness is a sense of proportion, and knowing when its not worth it.

    If marijuana smoke wafts onto my deck I know I have no solution – much like on the street when passers by blow cigarette smoke in my face. We share the air, the sound waves and much more. I am considerate, that’s all I can do. And I’m happy to see that most people are considerate too.

    On the whole I am blessed by good neighbors, that certainly helps to tolerate and politely ignore the bad ones. Its just not worth it, unless of course if you enjoy a fight.

  • 6
    CGAtoronto on March 29, 2016 Reply

    As many have learned, be nice to your neighbours, or scratches on your vehicle can occur.

  • 7
    BWF2 on March 30, 2016 Reply

    I had a neighbour who peed off his porch. He also had his TV in his backyard and was out there every single day of the year. And to keep himself cozy whilst watching TV, he had a bon fire. Just loved going to work smelling of smoke.

    We have since moved. Our new neighbours have a yappy dog who barks in the yard for hours on end and some horrible teenagers but I feel blessed.

  • 8
    Dan VanMman on March 30, 2016 Reply

    I find a leg whip to drop them followed by an up and over blow to the throat tends to solve these minor matters quite readily

  • 9
    Or on March 31, 2016 Reply

    Steva d’I have bullying neighbours who have felt entitled to come into my garden to destroy shrubbery. After they moved in and I realized what jerks they are, I had a survey done so I was prepared for any boundary issues. I’ve been resorting to privacy fences in the back. I talked to my lawyer what to do about their trespassing in my front garden to destroy plants. He said the least confrontational thing to do was to build a fence right along the property line. I did that and it works. Ever since I discovered how unpleasant they are, I ignore them and look through them. I never rise to the bait. The bait consists of such things as hurling obscenities at me. Both have jobs where there are codes of conduct. I had a neighbour convey to them that I was documenting their abuse for the police, and if I went to the police I would also go to their employers. That worked well.

  • 10
    joan98 on March 31, 2016 Reply

    I’ve live in my home for going on 22 years. Share a driveway with the greatest neighbours anyone could ever have. The minor issues really are minor and not really issues – parties, parking – and the good has been really good. I was a single mom who got helped with minor household repairs, we share perennials and tools, and they store their big snowblower in my garage but then clear both driveways when they have to haul it out. When they had a big anniversary party I just moved the cars out of my part of the driveway, brought out some lounge chairs and small tables and the party spread across both properties. Really, why fight?

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