You like your neighbors. Except for their incessantly barking dog. And that overhanging tree dropping limbs on your lawn. Then, there’s the garage spotlight glaring into your bedroom window. Last weekend’s party was out of control.
Almost everyone seems to have a gripe or two about the people next door. But irritations like these can turn daily greetings into dagger looks. Options for solving such squabbles range from mediation services to community resolution centers to legal action.
Here are some tips from professionals on what to do in common scenarios. As a general rule, these experts suggest checking out town and county ordinances (or apartment, co-op or condo rules) to see what is regulated and how you can lodge a complaint. If matters get worse, take video of the problem in the event you decide to take legal action or want to start a community petition.
But the best response, they say, is usually simple: Get to know your neighbors, and you can often work things out.
THAT DARNED BARKING DOG “You’d be hard-pressed to find an area of the country where that’s not a problem,” says Regina Ritcey, executive director of the New York State Dispute Resolution Association, a nonprofit based in Albany that supports the network of mediation and arbitration programs throughout the state’s 62 counties. Her advice? Apartments or complexes usually have rules to cover the situation. Community ordinances normally set out a time frame when animals must be quiet. But start with a discussion in which the owners are involved in the solution rather than blamed for the problem, she says. For example, they might be at work all day and not even realize Fido is a barking fiend. Chances are, both parties can find a solution before it gets to the mediation stage.
TREE TROUBLE Generally, property law allows you to trim a tree hanging over your yard (though not to the point that you kill it). That’s fair since not only is it a nuisance, it could be life-threatening, says Don Desroches who, along with his partner, Dana Greco, is a certified mediator in The Mediation and Family Counseling Group, with offices on Long Island and in Manhattan. Talking to your neighbor before taking action can help head off bad feelings. You might find out, for instance, that they are elderly, not in good physical shape or need financial help to tackle the problem. If you are good friends, you could offer to trim the tree yourself or chip in to pay someone else do it, Desroches says. Stay cool. “It’s important to let your emotions simmer down before you approach someone,” he says.
A GLARING PROBLEM Can’t sleep because of the spotlight next door shining in your window? Understandable. The key to the problem might be to think like your neighbor, says Dean Parker, a Dix Hills clinical psychologist. Why did they put up the light? Is it a security issue? Are they afraid of a robbery or break-in? Did they install it to keep from falling in the dark? Perhaps they don’t realize it’s beaming into your window. Maybe suggest they get a light with a lower wattage or angle it away from your house, Parker says. State your case in assertive but respectful terms, he says. Use “I” rather than “you” when talking about this or any issue. “Say things like, I get upset hearing music playing all the time, or I’m distressed when I see so much rubbish in the yard,” he says. “That way they can’t deny what you are feeling and they don’t get defensive.”
CAR CRUNCH Your next-door neighbor’s driveway has so many vehicles in it, it looks like a used-car lot. Surely, they could put some of those on the street. The answer, mediators say, might be to call the town or the co-op board and see if rules are being violated. Be careful about your attitude, though, says mediator Dana Greco. “Most people want to live peacefully, but they don’t want anyone telling them how to live or how many cars they can have.” Judy Axelrod, program director for the Long Island Dispute Resolution Center, which has offices in both Nassau and Suffolk, also advises a diplomatic approach. “A tool used by the mediator is reframing the issue so that the other party is hearing it in a less confrontational way,” she says.
PARTYING TOO HEARTY Noise is one of the most common annoyances people complain about in communities, says Lina Guillen, a California-based attorney who edits NOLO, a website that publishes do-it-yourself legal advice, and co-wrote the 2017 book “Neighbor Law: Fence, Trees, Boundaries and Noise.” Often, "noise'' means a raucous party. Start with a friendly word over the fence. She suggests starting the dialogue with, "Hey, it was pretty loud at your house last night." Keep things in context. Was it hosted by their children without their knowledge? Is this happening every weekend, or was it a special occasion? “They have a right to hold a party now and then, so you might want to let it go.” If things continue, she says, then perhaps it is time to call the town or gather those neighborhood signatures.
TATTLETALES The people down the street are having a messy divorce, a situation your gossip-happy neighbor is all too willing to talk about. You aren't. Avoiding clothesline chats that turn into an embarrassing overshare can boil down to simply saying thanks for the information and walking away, says Desroches. You also could try turning the conversation in another direction, or let the neighbor know you are sympathetic to the family’s plight. “Mention that it must be hard for them,” he says. Parker advises listening briefly, then drawing a line. “Just say, 'I don’t know what’s true and what’s not and I don’t feel comfortable talking about it,'” he says.
CHRISTMAS ALL YEAR 'ROUND Some people either don’t notice or mind that their yuletide decorations are still up months past the season. But you do. Here again, there might be town ordinances to regulate the problem, says Ritcey, of the dispute resolution association. But there also might be another story. She says she knew a man who became so upset over the problem that he finally knocked on his neighbor’s door. What happened next turned everything around. The wife told him her husband had been ill for months and wasn’t able to take the decorations down. Chagrined, he offered to help with the task. “The woman was delighted,” Ritcey says.