Hate Thy Neighbor?

Posted on May 29, 2006

Photography by Terrence Duff / 521 Productions

When Rob* bought a tract home in one of the new developments in Natomas, he was prepared for the reality that when you live in houses that are built practically right on top of each other, you are going to hear your neighbors’ noise from time to time.

The feud he’s in with the guy two doors down, which has been going on since 2003, started with his own housewarming party. Rob, 27, is a single, successful professional whose home is a short-term investment; he rents two rooms in his house to other single, young professionals like himself.

The man he’s fighting with is in his 30s, married with children. His house probably will be his home for a long time, possibly the rest of his life.

You can see where this is going, right?

Rob’s housewarming party was held a month after he moved in. It was a warm night, and the party moved out onto the patio area. At about 10:30 p.m., Rob’s two-doors-down neighbor started yelling over the fences for Rob and his guests to “keep it down.” Chastened guests shuffled back indoors, but trickled outdoors again, as partiers do. The yelling, this time laced with profanity, ensued again.

It was the first time Rob heard from this neighbor; he’d never met him.

Rob had another party a month after that, a birthday party for a friend. The neighbor started yelling out his window, “Shut the %$#@ up!” Then, awhile later, Rob’s neighbor actually came over.

“He was pointing, pushing shoulders, very obviously agitated. We explained to him, ‘Look, we’re not rowdy kids. We’re celebrating.’ He was agitated; we were intoxicated. [Then] we both cooled off, and things seemed OK,” says Rob.

 Or so he thought. Shortly thereafter, Rob received citations from the homeowners’ association about after-hours noise, the trash cans left out and visible, the back yard not completed within five months (a homeowners’ association violation in this development).

“It motivated us to get our back yard done, which was, of course, an excuse to throw more parties,” says Rob. Halfway through his third party, Rob’s neighbor started yelling out the window again: “Why don’t you go back to Rio Linda, you trashy kids!”

“I have no idea where Rio Linda is; I’m from Piedmont, in the Bay Area,” says Rob. “We started yelling back at him to close his window: ‘Are you too poor to turn on your air conditioning?’” Party guests yelled back at the neighbor, calling him poor and trashy, suggesting he move back to Rio Linda. He yelled back at them to turn off the lights after “moving their asses inside” or he was calling the homeowners’ association.
Time passed. The altercations continued. One night, he started yelling at Rob and his roommates again.

 “This time it was a Friday night,” says Rob. “I can see getting upset on a weeknight, but come on!” Rob’s neighbor had had a pool installed, and Rob’s roommate had gotten a dog. “We got a shovelful of dog poop and [went down the street and] launched it over the fence. We laughed and ran away when we heard the splash.”

Rob says they haven’t heard anything from the guy since. He doubts the feud has ended, but there seems to be something of a cease-fire in effect.

“I think a good neighbor would have, say, the first night, come over, said, ‘Here’s my card,’ introduced himself, explained he had kids who had school or whatever, and asked us to keep it down. And I would have given him my card with my numbers on it, introduced myself and said, ‘If we’re making too much noise, call and let us know.’ And ‘We’ll let you know if we are planning a party in advance.’

“But screaming obscenities at us over the fence the very first time we have a party? That just sets the scene for a bad situation.”

Rob admits he’s pushing buttons at this point. “Right now, I am building a million-dollar home up in El Dorado Hills that I’ll probably be moving into soon. This is a transitional place for me. But this guy, he’ll be here the rest of his life, and if it’s not me, it’ll be someone else doing something that annoys him.

“Maybe instead of selling the place, as a result of all this, I’ll rent the house out to a bunch of college students—maybe a fraternity,” Rob muses.

Neighbors have been feuding for centuries. Most people have been on one side or another of a neighborhood feud at some point in their lives. Perhaps you have complained about the barking dog and two years later owned a barking dog. Or reported the RV parked in the driveway to Code Enforcement months before purchasing a Winnebago of your own, parking it in the driveway after your family grew tired of having it in the back yard (where it’s allowed to be). Or perhaps you’ve refused to pull up a tree in your back yard that was moving the foundation of the pool next door, while your neighbor’s oak tree cracked your new front walkway.

It’s all due to proximity. You own your own property within feet of someone else’s own property. Given that you live in California, you probably paid a lot for that property. And no doubt something you’re doing or something your neighbor is doing crosses those property lines.

The difficulties start with “the talk”—you go over to the neighbor’s house, not wanting to make a big issue or have bad feelings, but wishing to calmly and politely address the problem. Or maybe you just yell things over the fence. Either way, conflicts between neighbors—the very of nature of which do not disappear overnight—often can erupt into full-scale feuds not unlike the one between Rob and his neighbor.

At their pettiest, feuds with neighbors are draining and time-consuming, making life at home unpleasant. At their worst, these conflicts can become expensive—even violent.

“I have to say, these kinds of disputes are pretty common,” says Lt. George Malim, public information officer for the Placer County Sheriff’s Department. “I’ve been going out on them since I started doing this more than 10 years ago.”

In early September, Malim was called to Loomis to investigate a fatal shooting. A land easement issue between property owners had been stewing for a year when, finally, one Friday evening, Gary Allen Bortis, described as a longtime Loomis resident, allegedly shot and killed Aptos developer Lawrence Joseph Ficarra.

The two had been fighting about Ficarra’s plan to build homes on the land across the street from Bortis’ house, The Sacramento Bee reported. The major dispute between the men involved Ficarra’s desire to widen the private road to allow access to the new homes.

“I arrived on the scene and my first response was, ‘You gotta be kidding me,’” Malim recalls. “One minute you’re arguing about driving a vehicle over a road and the next you’re going to kill someone over it?”
Malim says once a feud between neighbors starts, officers expect they’ll be called back out to the same houses several times. “A few [arguments] do get heated.”

In the situation in Loomis, before the shooting, for example, officers had responded to numerous calls.

 “These are civil disputes,” says Malim. “Parties have to work them out themselves, whether that means hiring a mediator or hiring an attorney and going to court. Until the individuals involved do that, we know we’ll go out there again and again.”

When asked if people get belligerent toward him when he arrives on the scene to investigate a complaint, Ron O’Connor, chief of Sacramento City Code Enforcement, laughs and laughs and laughs . . .

“Do people ever get belligerent with me? All the time!” he exclaims, still laughing. “We’ve had to call the police out to a scene. One time, in particular, this guy was running a used-car lot out of a duplex parking lot. We were towing cars and had to call five cops out just to calm people down.”

Larry Brooks, chief of code enforcement for Sacramento County, says,“When there are no code violations, when nothing’s being broken, and neighbors are nitpicking at each other, we usually send them to mediation.” This is particularly the case with barking dogs and what he calls visual blight issues, which, he explains, with current property values so high, are a huge concern. “People feel that these issues can affect the sale or refinancing of their property,” says Brooks.

Visual blight issues can include something as extreme as an untended property that’s been destroyed by fire or suffered fire damage or as minor as houses that are left vacant with overgrown weeds in the yard.

“People take visual blight seriously,“ he says. But, he adds, “There’s no law against a bad paint job or a dirty automobile.”

Not yet, anyway.

In the city of Sacramento, some of the most recent complaints have resulted in a Frontporch Maintenance Ordinance that’s working its way through the City Council right now. It’s an addition to the code that will require people to maintain upkeep of the front of their houses, to discourage people from storing old furniture, boxes and other junk in the front yard, says O’Connor.

“It’s got a ways to go before it’s an ordinance,” he adds, “but it’s likely the closest thing to an Ugly House Law we’ll have on the books anytime soon.”

“People get the mentality, ‘This is America; this is my property. I should be able to do what I want,’” says O’Connor. “But the truth is—and you have to explain this to these people—the city has ordinances and codes that citizens are required to comply with. Because like it or not, we share our properties with our communities, i.e., our neighbors.”

Most agree that issues between neighbors that seem minor still need to be addressed and resolved, lest they inevitably breed long-term resentment.

There are resources for residents who feel driven out of their neighborhoods by their neighbors’ behavior, regardless of which side of the conflict they fall on: It’s what Code Enforcement, part of most local neighborhood services departments, is all about.

Code Enforcement designs and enforces rules regarding blight and nuisances and works to maintain a clean environment for all citizens in a community. The city of Sacramento, the county and surrounding counties have their own code enforcement departments. Officials such as O’Connor encourage citizens to file complaints, contact neighborhood response teams, attend neighborhood association meetings and, in short, get involved. Because city and county codes can differ dramatically (see “Know Your Rights . . . and Your Neighbors’” sidebar on page 139), it’s important for citizens to know what the code will and will not allow.
Generally, complaints can be filed anonymously and repeatedly before a fine is charged. “A lot of the time, people don’t even know they have violated a code,” says Brooks. “Some are actually glad that we’ve made them aware of the problem, and they want to fix it right away.”

Professional mediation is another option for resolving the situation.

“The city and its surrounding areas are growing,” says Nancy Cornelius of the Sacramento Mediation Center. “There are more people, more cars, more diversity and more language barriers. There’s more stress on families these days. Neighborhood issues take their toll, and we get a large volume of calls on a daily basis.”

Cornelius says the mediation center boasts a 95 percent success rate with the all-time most reported neighbor complaint: barking dogs, a problem both the city and the county admit they can’t do much about.

In mediation, about $80 for a three hour session, professional mediators hear both sides of the story and work with the conflicted neighbors to arrive at a resolution. But the center won’t take every case, says Angela Ridgway, who manages the center and deals with land easement issues and multiple-party mediation. It will not help resolve conflicts that have a history of violence, and will not handle disputes where drugs, alcohol use or issues of mental illness are involved. “We often receive calls from landlords and tenants seeking legal counsel. We can’t help people with that,” says Ridgway.

“It’s 100 percent voluntary,” Cornelius says. “The parties have to be willing to be here, they can leave anytime, right in the middle of the session if they choose. They have to be willing to want to resolve their differences. We don’t enforce laws or codes here,” she explains.

“Many times, when we have people in for mediation, the parties realize that there is some other issue behind the feud,” she says. She details how one conflict—over a barking Chihuahua—revealed racial issues the two parties were finally willing to admit. “Those families eventually became friends,” she reports.

Karen Klinger of Klinger Realty in Sacramento owns several properties—apartment complexes and single-family homes—that she rents out to tenants. She has had her share of neighbor issues: the intrusive tree, the auto-repair shop in the back yard next door. She does not call code enforcement, she says, because “they are my neighbors, and you want to be a good neighbor, and you want to try to work things out with them.” She recalls an ongoing issue with one of her own neighbors who made noise late at night. “I went over and talked to him about it nicely, and now, when he sees the light go off in my house, he knows to keep it down.”

She tells tenants who rent in her apartment complexes that it’s important that they “get along” and “be good neighbors to each other.”

“If one of them isn’t willing to do that, if one starts to cause trouble, that tenant is gone. I tell them that right away,” says Klinger.

Roaming pets

Dan moved into a house off a quiet East Sacramento block, tucked behind Sutter Memorial Hospital, in 1979. The same neighbors have lived on this block for decades. It is a tight-knit group; by proximity and default, everyone knows everyone else’s business.

Dan and his wife own several indoor/outdoor cats. He met one of his neighbors for the first time after a dog belonging to someone renting from the neighbor chased down and killed one of their kittens, right in their front yard. “My wife found the kitten,” he recalls. “We know it was this dog because he’s the only one who runs around off the leash.”

The neighbor expressed some sympathy, but intimated that, because Dan allowed his cats to roam the neighborhood, he was partially to blame. There also was an issue about yard work—the neighbor would leave trimmings from a redwood tree in his yard strewn across the sidewalk and in the road; when cars passed by, red dust would spray through his screen door into his home, says Dan.

Also, when Dan’s friend came to visit, he would park his camper in a shady spot in front of the neighbor’s house. The neighbor complained about that—it was the space in front of his house, after all—and eventually called Code Enforcement.

“That was it for me,” says Dan, who repeats all the neighborhood gossip he has heard about the man, including, “It’s public record—you can go check for yourself—that he’s nearly been foreclosed on.” The two don’t speak.

Dan and his wife have lived on that street for so long that many of the neighbors are friendly with his cats, which roam the neighborhood freely, exploring porches, back yards and, it turns out, even attics. But not all Dan’s neighbors are cat people: One young couple who lives down the street, for example, is becoming increasingly agitated about the fact that the cats use decorative bark in the front yard as a litter box. They recently built a backyard sandbox for their toddler daughter and are worried it may serve the same purpose.
Others on the block routinely chase the cats from their porches and out of their back yards. One neighbor says the cats climb into his attic and, while he prefers cats to rats in his attic, “They still get pretty loud,” he says.

Dan and his wife occasionally can be seen bringing a struggling cat back home from various homes on the block. Cats are one thing the city and county officials readily admit they can’t do much about, and they report that, all too often, disliked cats become targets for violent control measures, such as poisoning.
“Right now it’s just a nuisance,” shrugs one of Dan’s neighbors.

But what happens as this continues month after month?

Fenced In

Got issues with neighbors on both sides of the fence?

In Arden Park, there are three feuds brewing on one corner of one residential block.

The woman in the middle is upset that her neighbor’s plum tree, which hangs over the fence, drops fruit into her pool. “I told the tenants—they rent the home—about it and didn’t hear anything for five weeks,” she reports.

The man who owns the house refuses to cut down the tree and has informed his neighbor that she can trim the tree, but not top it.

He’s busy with an issue on the other side of his yard, where he’s watching a guesthouse go up. The building is in code violation because it’s too close to the fence—a fence, this man insists, that was rebuilt too far over on his side of the property line. “Eventually, we’re going to renovate this house and expand it. That guesthouse could be a problem,” he says. Right now, since he brought the violation to the neighbor’s attention, construction appears to have stopped, so the half-built guesthouse stands there, the top of it edging over the fence.

Meanwhile, the woman who is bothered by the plum tree also has a neighbor on her other side who has issues with the fence she had rebuilt.

“I asked the owner of the house next door to help pay for it,” says the plum-tree hater, “and she wanted to see plans. I was, like, plans? For a fence? There are no plans; it’s a fence!” She put the fence up, which her neighbor (this is the one on the other side, remember) insists is in violation of an ordinance that forbids fences from being more than 6 feet tall.

“It’s a 7-foot fence,” says the neighbor who wanted to see the fence plans.” And she wanted to cut down my tree, a tree that’s 50 years old and shades the whole house.”

The woman who built the fence also points out that plants on her neighbor’s side of the fence are growing through to her side. ‘If you want ivy on your side of the fence, fine; but keep it off my side of the fence,” she complains. “I don’t want ivy on my side of the fence.”

Imagine all this in front of Judge Judy.

A (junk) Heap of Trouble

The front lawn of Dan Cook’s East Sacramento home looks, he admits, a little like the set of “Sanford and Son.” There is a boat on one side of the driveway, two racing bikes loaded in the back of a truck, a camper parked on the street in front of the house and two dusty vehicles that don’t appear to have been driven anywhere in a while. He admits he’s pushing it: “We try not to let it get this bad. We’re in the process of storing the boat and the camper, and I’m getting rid of the cars.”

Cook says neighbors haven’t called Code Enforcement yet, though they have in the past. “I’ll get on my bikes and ride them around the neighborhood. They make quite a bit of noise when I’m riding them around or working on them in the back. There are people living here,” he points across the street and then behind the house, “who have called the police. Then they come out and watch when the cops come.”

Cook says more often than not, the officers have explained to him that they have to respond to these calls, ask him to cool it and, finally, ask him a question or two about where he got his bikes and where he races them.

 “It’s Not My Dog”

“It’s not realistic to expect a dog not to bark,” says James, who lives with his new wife, Jane, in a three-bedroom single-family home in Citrus Heights. “But your dog can’t bark all the time, certainly not all night, not under someone’s window when they’re trying to sleep.”

The two heard a dog yapping about six months ago and tried to figure out where it was coming from. “When you don’t know for sure, you may yell out the window when it gets really bad,” James admits. But when the two did figure out whose dog it was—a woman who lived one block over, behind their house—they attempted to talk to her about the dog. “She said it wasn’t her dog.” The yapping continued.

Jane, a lawyer, called the county and was shocked to discover how complicated the process was to file a complaint. After they filed, the woman responded that her dog was kept indoors at all times. “That was a bunch of crap,” Jane says now. But the couple had to wait 30 days before filing another complaint. The yapping continued.

Another complaint was filed—and ignored. So Jane and her husband made a tape of the dog barking. They found neighbors willing to corroborate their story. (Not easy to do—neighbors often prefer not to get involved, even when the barking is chronic.) Six months later, the two are waiting for a packet of information to arrive from the county on how to schedule a hearing.

“Here we are, newlyweds, lying in bed with our matching ear plugs,” Jane says sarcastically. “The lack of sleep has affected both of us on the job. When the dog isn’t barking, you just lie there and wait for that string of yapping to start.”

Her husband adds that the whole process has been very educational. “We’ve learned a lot about the process to handle this situation the right way. We’re not the kind of people who are going to throw rat poison over the fence or anything like that. But it is a drawn-out process that has really tested our patience. Why the woman won’t just bring the dog in at night—like she says she does—we don’t know.”

The woman refuses to cooperate, so mediation (see sidebar) is out of the question. The couple aren’t sure what they’ll do even if she shows up at the hearing. “I think it’s only a $50 fine,” James reports. “That’s not gonna matter to her. She may just ignore that, too.”

The Veaches’ dog, Precious, was not so lucky. Rodney and Shannon Veach live on Gary Street in North Sacramento and, shortly after they moved into their house two years ago, the Veach dog, unused to the busy street, was barking a great deal. Rodney Veach tied the dog up to keep her from running from the back yard to the front yard, where she would bark at the traffic. (The fence enclosed the whole property around, front and back.) When the dog began vomiting blood, the Veaches took her to the vet and were told she had been poisoned. After the dog’s death, Shannon Veach inspected the area along the back of the house and found a raw, uneaten hot dog with rat poison stuffed in it and a bucket, turned upside down, on the other side of the fence.

“I wanted to go over there and confront the guy, but Rodney wouldn’t let me,” Shannon says. The police told the Veaches that nothing could be done about it without an eyewitness. “We were told some people were able to press charges [in similar cases] by catching the act on videotape.”
The two retaliated in a manner about which they won’t go into great detail, except that it involved a dead rat.

Know Your Rights and Your Neighbors

Got issues with your neighbor? Here’s what to do and where to go for more information.

>Barking Dogs—There’s not a lot the city and county can do except refer neighbors to the Sacramento Mediation Center, as this problem is under Animal Control’s jurisdiction. “We tell the complainant to monitor the noise; there needs to be a consistency of the noise for a period of time to violate the code,” says Larry Brooks, chief of Code Enforcement for Sacramento County. “Some common ways people resolve this issue include dog obedience school, moving the dog run to another location in the yard so that it’s not right underneath the neighbor’s bedroom window or bringing the dog inside.”
In the city of Sacramento, ordinances usually require that two neighbors complain about the noise to hold a hearing. Most city and county ordinances limit pets to four cats and four dogs per household. Dogs must be licensed and leashed at all times when in public areas.
>Mending Fences—When the fence is broken down and one neighbor wants to fix it, but the other isn’t responsive or won’t agree to pay for half, there can be problems. In Sacramento County, there is no requirement that individuals’ properties be fenced off, so that, too, can become an issue. Ordinances often restrict the height of fences, but heights vary from county to county.
>Noise Ordinances—“The city gets calls about leaf blowers,” says Rob O’Connor of Sacramento City Code Enforcement. Legally, you can operate this kind of equipment on weekdays and Saturday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
>Garage Sales—Sacramento County limits garage sales to three per year per household.

>Recreational Vehicle Storage—In the city, recreational vehicles may not be parked for long periods of time, even in the driveway. Boats may be parked in driveways, but must be registered in the homeowner’s name. Again, county ordinances vary.
>Automobile Repair—In the county, even for minor maintenance such as oil changes, cars must be taken to a dealer to be serviced. In the city, you can work on your car in a driveway or a garage, so long as the automobile is registered to the homeowner.

>Abandoned Vehicles—In the city of Sacramento, cars on public property longer than three days are considered abandoned and can be towed.
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