Fairground Neighborhood Association

Getting Along With your Neighbors

Do's and Don'ts: Neighbor Relations (Legal)

Most of us have to deal with neighbors. Unlike communities of 100 years ago, our neighbors are less likely to be family members and other people like us. These days, a neighborhood can be made up of people from various ethnic and economic backgrounds, recent immigrants and established families. You'd probably be surprised how far common sense and simple manners can go toward keeping up good neighbor relations. In addition, there are laws that govern many of the ways we use our residential property and how we relate to our neighbors

DO think about your neighbors and whether the way that you use your property will affect them. What's the view like from across the street? Can the people in the house behind you hear your son's band practicing in your garage?

DO check your title, your deed, applicable restrictive covenants, local zoning ordinances, and state laws before you build, expand, demolish, or remodel your property. Your neighbors have the right to your compliance with the law.

DO investigate what your community has to offer. There are many private and governmental organizations that are there to help communities run smoothly. Such organizations offer anything from legal information to conflict resolution programs to home improvement financing.

DO communicate with your neighbors. If you're thinking about building a fence between your property and your neighbor's, start talking about it now. Neighbors who know what's going on are more likely to be supportive of projects that affect them and more likely to cooperate if problems arise.

DO get to know your neighbors, and consider starting a community program such as neighborhood watch or an annual block party. Neighbors who are paying attention to what's happening around them can help prevent crime and neighborhood decline.

DO know where your property boundary lines are and respect them. Many of your rights as a property owner end at your property line.

DO seek the support of your neighbors when you want to make a big change. Most zoning boards are amenable to nonconforming uses or imposition or waiver of zoning laws if the whole neighborhood consents.


DON'T hurry to file a lawsuit over every little problem. Many communities have good community mediation programs that provide an efficient, economical, and friendly way to resolve conflicts.

DON'T put up with discourteous neighbors, though. Odds are, if your next-door neighbor's late-night parties are bothering you, they are bothering your other neighbors, as well. There are laws, such as zoning laws, that govern noise levels and activities that are allowed or prohibited in your area. Sometimes the best solution is to file a lawsuit.

DON'T forget small-claims court. If the problem with your neighbor results in a lawsuit, think about reducing the amount of money you're demanding. Most small-claims courts have a limit on the amount of money at stake in each case. It might be worth your while to lower your demand in exchange for the convenience of having your problem resolved in a small-claims court.

DON'T hesitate to seek legal advice. Asking a lawyer for help doesn't necessarily mean you will end up in court or with a huge legal bill. Your lawyer can give you good advice about your rights and responsibilities with regard to your neighbors, often preventing problems before they arise.

Water Damage

Feeling a little wet behind the ears? Here's what you should know about water damage, your neighbors and the law.

When water causes property damage -- flooded basements, collapsing retaining walls or soggy gardens, for example -- feuds between neighbors often result. But the legal issues can be as muddy as the mess in your backyard.

Acts of God
The law does not hold landowners responsible for things they cannot control: natural events in which they had no part. But damage is often caused by a combination of factors, divine and mortal. If an act of God and somebody's carelessness combine to create harm, the careless person is liable, at least in part.

Most court cases between neighbors that involve water are the result of runoff and flooding from rainwater.

The "common enemy" rule. In the past, many courts treated excessive rainwater as a "common enemy," damaging property at random. Under this theory, you were expected to take measures to protect your own property from water coursing across the land. Even if a neighbor on higher ground diverted water to prevent flooding and deposited it on you, you were expected to protect yourself from the extra water.

The courts that still declare water a common enemy now impose some restrictions on upper landowners. In New York, you can improve your land without being liable for a change in flow of surface waters, provided you do not resort to drains, pipes or ditches.

The District of Columbia's approach is similar. In a case where a house was flooded with water and mud after neighboring property was demolished and graded, the flooded neighbor lost in court. The work was not unusual or extraordinary.

The reasonableness rule.Today, in almost all other places, when one neighbor alters the land and damage occurs to another, the neighbor is liable for the damage if the alteration was "unreasonable." But what to one neighbor appears perfectly reasonable may not seem so at all to another.

Judges have wrestled with these questions for hundreds of years. In 1886, a court decided that although building a house was reasonable, installing a roof without gutters, which caused a neighbor to flood, was not. Gutters and downspouts that send rainwater gushing onto a neighbor's property are also unreasonable alterations to natural flow.

What about digging a ditch that redirects rainwater onto someone else's property? One neighbor in Wisconsin who did this caused water to stand and erode the other's retaining wall. He was guilty of intentionally trespassing on the neighbor's property. But if the ditch were absolutely necessary to prevent huge harm and the damage to the neighbor were slight, there might be an exception.

In a 1980 Nevada case, development of a new subdivision severely flooded neighbors who were there first, destroying one person's property completely. The developers and the county were found to have acted unreasonably and were liable for the damage.

Some states have laws prohibiting landowners from diverting surface water onto a neighbor's property. Texas, for example, provides that no person may divert or impound the natural flow of surface waters in a manner that damages the property of another by the overflow.

What the Neighbor at Fault
Must Pay For
If a neighbor is legally responsible for water damage you suffer, you may be entitled to:
compensation for cost of repairs and replacements
compensation for expenses such as having to stay at a motel
compensation for mental distress, if you have suffered an underlying physical injury.
reimbursement for medical expenses.
punitive damages, if a neighbor acted maliciously. For example, a man in Vermont built a road and two culverts on his land that resulted in flooding the property next door. When the neighbor complained, he built a third culvert that made the flooding worse. He was also verbally abusive to the neighbor. When she sued, the court not only compensated her for her damage, but also ordered the neighbor to stop the water diversion and to pay extra money to her as punishment for malice.
Judges also frequently order problems to be fixed if fixing them would be easy and inexpensive. Replacing a downspout, clearing away debris or cleaning out a drain creates very little burden on a property owner. Judges are less likely to order someone to remove a retaining wall, relandscape property or redo a culvert.
Homeowner's Insurance
Insurance in water damage cases is tricky. If the water comes into your home from an inside source -- say, from a pipe in the townhouse next door -- your ordinary homeowner's insurance should come into play. Contact your agent; your company may pay for your damage and then go after whoever caused it for repayment.
When the damage comes from outside rising water, even if your neighbor's action caused the problem, you may need flood insurance to involve your own company. However, if the problem was caused at least in part by a neighbor, your neighbor's company may well pay you directly. That person's insurance company might also tell your neighbor to correct the problem -- or risk cancellation of the insurance policy.

Avoid Conflict --- Get to know your neighbors.

Getting to know your neighbors is the most important and simplest action you can take to help minimize conflicts. When you know your neighbors, it is easier to talk to them when problems occur and to keep problems from escalating into blame, misunderstandings, hard feelings or intense community conflict. Knowing your neighbors, communicating and having an "open door" policy makes it more likely that when they have a concern about your farm operation - such as noise or odor - they will call you directly to work it out instead of using other avenues, such as county or state government agencies or "word of mouth" gossip throughout the community. It also means that when you have a complaint about a neighbor -- such as trespassing or littering -- that they may be more open to discussing it with you. Make your communications a "two-way street."

Talk to your neighbors. According to many people, talking with your neighbors and letting them know what you are doing is very important. People who take the time to explain their practices often head off conflicts with neighbors. Good communication builds trust and allows you to discuss problems with your neighbors in a peaceful and respectful way. It also helps neighbors learn that you are approachable and interested in their concerns. If a neighbor does have a complaint about you, it is better that they feel comfortable enough to approach you directly instead of you hearing of it secondhand.

You don't solve anything by being hard-nosed or arrogant. How you respond to complaints or concerns expressed by neighbors often will determine whether the issue grows into anger, resentment and major conflict. Farmers who have already established friendly relationships with their neighbors will find it easier to avoid such conflict.

Neighbors involved in a disagreement can develop mutually acceptable solutions if they are willing to set aside strongly held positions, be truthful with themselves and others about their true interests, and openly exchange ideas. Building trust is essential to working through these problems. Follow these steps toward resolving the conflict:

Carefully select the time and location for the discussion. Sitting down in neutral territory may help. Asking someone to facilitate the meeting who is skillful in mediation and does not have an interest in the outcome may also help.

Listen carefully to the other person. Respect and try to understand the other person's feelings and needs.

Define the problem in clear, concrete terms.

Work together to generate as many solutions as you can, taking care not to pass judgment on other's ideas.

Reach an agreement on the most workable solution - one that all involved understand and can live with.

Establish a way to check on how the solution is working.

If the other person does not live up to his or her end of the bargain, re-state the problem and agreed-upon solution, and inform the other person what your next step will be if the problem is not resolved as agreed upon.

Legal action should only be considered if the other person does not work toward the agreed-upon solution or refuses to meet to discuss the issue. Taking legal action can be expensive and often means that the people involved have little control of the outcome.

Developing and improving your relationship with your neighbors, especially if some of them are new to your community, can be one of the most important activities you do.

Posted by timcalhoun on 05/15/2008
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