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Message #761 Neighbor disputes

mp3 #761 Neighbor Disputes (mp3 file)

If your neighbor is doing something that is terribly annoying to you, the activity is probably against the law. Most everyday activity that could disturb a neighbor is regulated by city or county ordinances. Uncut weeds, dogs roaming at large, old cars up on blocks, may be illegal.

Here are a few of the topics most commonly covered in local laws:

Blighted property. This is property that has been allowed to fall into disrepair. Ordinances prohibit such property when it creates a danger to others, or is such an eyesore that it reduces the value of surrounding property. An uncaring neighbor can be forced to repair the unsightly mess or face a fine.

Weeds, rubbish and garbage. Most cities prohibit high weeds, rubbish and garbage on property, and often lump them together in one ordinance. Communities may prohibit these health problems because they encourage breeding of insects and rodents, or because they are fire hazards.

Animal problems. Most towns have ordinances designed to deal with problems created by animals - or more accurately, by irresponsible animal owners.

Number and kind of animals. Local ordinances often limit the number of certain pets allowed per household. These laws are designed to cut down on noise, odors and health problems. Someone who is determined to keep more animals than allowed may have to buy a special kennel license from the city.

Although dog and cat owners are most likely to be affected by these laws, they are not the only ones. Some ordinances also limit the number of ducks, pigeons and chickens on property within the city limits.

Other farm animals, such as pigs, hogs, goats and horses, are usually not allowed within the city limits. But in Albany, California, a property owner is allowed to keep one goat - for only a 60 day period - for weed control.

Special regulations may also cover beekeeping, both by requiring a permit and limiting the location of hives.

Leash laws. Almost all towns have leash laws, requiring dogs to be under restraint when off the owner's property. Sometimes these are called "running at large" laws. If a neighbor reports the dog, the city can pick up and impound the animal and fine the owner.

Pooper scooper laws. These laws require the owner of an animal to immediately remove an animal's droppings when the animal is away from the owner's premises.

Drug dealers. When someone sells illegal drugs, it is ordinarily a matter for the police and the district attorney's office to handle through criminal proceedings. But many police departments and prosecutor’s offices are overburdened and unresponsive to citizens' complaints about neighborhood drug dealing.

Some frustrated neighbors have brought lawsuits in small claims court against owners of properties where drug dealing and other crimes flourish - and they have won. A number of small claims awards against the same person quickly add up.

Many cities have also passed laws that both make it easier for landlords to evict drug-dealing tenants, and punish landlords ~who sit by while drug dealing goes on in their property.

In Los Angeles, for example, the police department can notify landlords when tenants are arrested or convicted for drug related offenses. In Pasadena, a landlord who refuses to evict the tenants after a request from the city can be fined up to $5,000.

Local governments are also rigorously enforcing laws that allow them to sue landlords to have premises declared a public hazard or nuisance. In New York City and other places, owners have been fined and buildings have been closed down.

Landlords can even lose their property. Federal or local law enforcement authorities can take legal action to have housing used by drug dealers seized and turned over to the government even if the owner's part in the crime is just to ignore it.

Residential-only zoning. In most residential areas, zoning laws allow only single-family dwellings. This means the investor who purchases property down the street, and then turns it into an apartment house for partying college students, may be violating the zoning laws.

Zoning laws also prohibit running a business at home that attracts customers and creates traffic in some residential areas. These can prohibit, among others, home-based beauty parlors, typing services, tax preparers and car mechanics.

The neighbor who has a yard sale once a year is not really in business - although some towns require a permit - but the one who opens the garage door every Saturday morning for a sale may be violating the zoning law.

Vehicles. Old broken-down cars in the yard are an unwelcome sight to neighbors and can violate local law. A typical ordinance requires any disabled car to either be enclosed or placed behind a fence.

Almost all cities prohibit leaving a vehicle on a street for more than 72 hours. When someone in the neighborhood brings it to their attention, some towns will tow away a vehicle that has been parked too long.

And relatives in their parked recreational vehicle, who have been visiting across the street for the past year, could pay their next visit to the judge.

Next, noisy neighbors. One of the most aggravating problems between neighbors is noise. There are two common reactions when your neighbor is making too much noise. The first is resignation: you hate the noise, but you do nothing. The second is anger: you lose your temper and call the police. But there are better ways to handle the situation.

Local noise laws. If you are a reasonable person and your neighbor is seriously bothering you with noise, the neighbor is probably violating a local noise law. Typical laws regulate the times, types and loudness of the noise you need not tolerate, in the interests of being neighborly.

Decibel level laws. Many towns prohibit sustained noise that exceeds a certain decibel level. The limits are usually set according to the time of day - they're higher during daytime working hours. Limits are also affected by zoning. For example, higher levels are allowed at any time in industrial areas.

Noise can legally exceed the limit in emergencies, such as road repair. Also, some cities issue permits for certain activities, such as a construction project or street fair.

When an affected neighbor complains about severe noise, an officer places a machine that measures decibel levels on an estimated property line, or inside the home of the one who is complaining and takes a reading. If the noise level is above the decibel limit set out in the ordinance, the noisy neighbor will be warned or cited.

Quiet hours. Most local ordinances include "quiet times". A typical ordinance prohibits loud noises between 11P.M. and 7 or 8A.M. on weekdays and 11P.M. or midnight until 8 to 10A.M. on Sundays and holidays.

Quiet hours also depend on the zoning for the particular spot. In a residential-only zone, for example, the morning hour may be 8 a.m. and in an industrial area 7A.M. if any noise is loud enough to keep a reasonable person awake during these hours, it is probably illegal.

And having quiet times during specific hours does not mean that there are no noise restrictions at other times. Excessive and unnecessary noise can be a violation at any time.

Vehicle noise. Some laws restrict unnecessary vehicle noise. For example, an ordinance may state that unnecessarily running a motorcycle engine is presumed to disturb a neighbor. And often there is a requirement that automobile mufflers be kept in good repair.

Most cities also prohibit honking a car horn for any reason except danger. This means that the daily early morning tooting across the street for the car pool violates the ordinance.

Barking dogs. Dogs are frequently regulated by separate noise ordinances. The dog that barks only at intruders or a passing fire engine is probably within legal limits. But the neighbors down the block who allow their dog to howl all night are violating the ordinance.

Unreasonable noise. If a noise that is driving you up the wall isn't specifically prohibited, it may still be illegal if it is "unreasonable". Most ordinances prohibit unreasonable noise, but they don't define it. The police may have to decide on the spot whether to issue a citation for the noise. If the noisy neighbor contests the citation, the final decision will be made by a judge.

Generally, to be unreasonable, a noise must be - in the mind of an average person - too loud, prolonged or disturbing under the circumstances. That usually boils down to common sense and community standards. For example, the child who practices the piano for an hour each day after school is normally not a candidate for a legal infraction. But a roaring swing piano concert at 11:00 every night may be.

If a neighbor's noise is excessive and deliberate, it may also be a violation of state laws against disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct.

Other local laws on noise. If your town doesn't have a noise ordinance that addresses your particular situation, you may be able to solve a neighbor noise problem by using another local ordinance. Discharging firearms or shooting off firecrackers, for example, are forbidden by separate laws. Having too many animals on one property can violate another law. Even working on a broken car or building a boat for too long may be prohibited.

For example, imagine that your neighbor uses power tools in his garage all day Saturday and Sunday to repair lawn mowers. The power tools are enough to drive you mad, but this neighbor also tests each lawn mower after finishing work on it. In addition, other people are coming and going as they drop off and pick up mowers.

Your local noise law probably doesn't say anything about the tools or the mowers during the weekend days. But there may be zoning laws restricting your area to residential use. Any business conducted at home - such as the neighbor's little machine shop - that makes noise, attracts customers and creates traffic probably violates the zoning law.

Noise as a violation of a rental agreement. If you live in an apartment, you have two additional avenues open to you to protect your quiet. First, the landlord may evict the person making the noise. And, second, if the landlord fails to evict the noisy tenant, you can sue the landlord.

Standard rental and lease agreements contain a clause entitling you to "quiet enjoyment" of your premises. If the neighbor's stereo is keeping you up every night, the tenant is probably violating the rental agreement - grounds for eviction. Reminding the neighbor of the terms of the rental agreement may be all that is necessary.

If that doesn't help, complain to the resident manager or landlord. Most apartment owners don't want problems among their tenants, and they won't put up with somebody who ignores the signed agreement and causes trouble. Especially if several tenants complain at the same time, the landlord will probably order the tenant to comply with the lease or face eviction.

Noise in subdivisions and condominiums. If you own a condominium or a house in a subdivision, you may be subject to rules that regulate everything from what color you can paint your fence to what activities are allowed on your property. Restrictions against excessive noise are quite common.

The right to enforce the rules is usually in the hands of a residents' committee or homeowner's association. Someone who violates the rules may be sanctioned or even sued by the association.

Next, tree disputes. Disputes often arise between neighbors when trees do what they do naturally and predictably: when trees grow. The tree owner may be blissfully unaware that the mighty oak has crept outward as well as upward, and that it now hangs menacingly over a neighbor's property.

The problem is often a matter of degree. A few limbs over the fence present no problem; several years later those same limbs, now huge and pressing against the garage, are quite disturbing.

The same principle applies to debris raining down from above and roots creeping underneath. A little autumn shedding is acceptable, but not clogged gutters every few days - and definitely not pipes invaded by aggressive roots.

The law often reflects these matters of degree. For a simple inconvenience, the neighbor is usually expected to trim away any bothersome branches or roots on his or her own property. If the injury to the neighbor is more severe, the neighbor may be able to sue the tree owner.

Help from a city or utility company. A utility company, such as the telephone company, will usually trim a tree that might damage its equipment - for example, if limbs are growing into or hanging dangerously over the lines.

The city may take responsibility for trees that are on its property or that might endanger city property - for example, by obstructing a sidewalk or blocking the view at an intersection. To see if the tree is on a strip of city property, go to city hall and look at the city map.

Trimming a neighbor's tree: the right of self-help. Property owners in every state have the right to cut off branches and roots that stray onto their property. In most states, this is the only help provided by the law, even when damage from a tree is substantial.

A neighbor who cuts back limbs or roots of a tree belonging to someone else is not free to rev up a chain saw and prune at will. There are legal guidelines.

The neighbor:

-Can trim only up to the boundary line.

-Needs permission to enter the owner's property, unless the limbs threaten to cause imminent and grave harm.

-May not cut down the tree itself.

-Cannot destroy the tree by the trimming.

A permit may be necessary in some cities for any tree trimming or for pruning certain species of trees.

As a practical matter, it you decide to trim encroaching branches or roots of a neighbor's tree, always warn the tree owner first. The owner may well want to take responsibility for the work to assure the health and symmetry of the tree. An effective approach might be to offer to share the cost of trimming the whole tree.

If the tree owner objects to your trimming plans, write a letter explaining why your action is necessary and legal. Or get a lawyer to write to the neighbor. Often, a letter on legal letterhead will get prompt attention and cooperation. Some lawyers will write a letter at your direction for about $100.

Few laws will require an owner to cut down or remove a pesky tree or shrub - unless it is diseased or somehow perched precariously enough to cause a danger to passersby. A few states, including California, Louisiana and Washington, allow a neighbor to sue a tree owner for harm caused by encroaching branches or even roots when the tree is healthy.

The underlying problem with encroaching branches and invading roots is usually the expense. Pruning a large tree can run anywhere from $300 to over $1,000. Although in some states, the neighbor who does the trimming must pay for it, in California an owner can be forced to take this responsibility. And in Hawaii, a neighbor who faces substantial damage from a tree may have the trimming done and then demand payment for it from the tree's owner.

Next, fence disputes. City and county fence ordinances in most urban and suburban areas can be surprisingly strict and detailed. Most regulate height and location - and some also control the material used and even the appearance of a fence. Many cities require a building permit to construct a fence at all.

These fence regulations apply to all types of fences - any structure used as an enclosure or a barrier or a partition. Often, they include hedges and trees. In reality, however, local fence laws are loosely enforced, if at all. Cities are not in the business of sending around fence inspection teams - and most localities contain lots of fence violations that no one has complained about. As long as nobody else minds and no one complains, a nonconforming fence may stand forever.

Also, what may have started out perfectly legal may later exceed the legal limits. For example, a nice little hedge may grow into a 15-foot natural wall. If both neighbors like it, nothing is ever said, and there it stands.

If someone does complain, the neighbor who is violating an ordinance will be given a written notification of the violation and asked to conform. If he or she doesn't, the city can fine the person and even sue to force compliance. A slight violation, however, is not usually enough to trigger help from the city or county authorities.

Some of the types of restrictions found in the local laws include the following:

-Maximum heights. Almost all towns place height restrictions on fences. In residential areas, local rules commonly restrict artificial or constructed back-yard fences to a height of six feet. In front yards, the limit is often four feet.

General fence height restrictions may apply to natural fences - those of bushes or trees - if they meet the ordinance's general definition of fences. Whether trees and bushes are considered fences depends on the location of their trunks, the particular ordinance and whether or not they are actually used as a fence. When natural fences are singled out in the laws, the height restrictions commonly range from five to eight feet.

Setback requirements. Most local fence laws contain what is called a setback rule requiring fences to be set back a certain distance from the street or sidewalk. This gives the city room to maintain its own property and prevents danger caused by fences blocking the view at a driveway or intersection.

Prohibited materials. Some towns prohibit the use of certain materials in building or maintaining a fence - for example, electrically charged or barbed wire. And even without such a specific law, if a fence is made of unsound material or so poorly constructed that it is an eyesore or a danger, it may be prohibited by a "blighted property" ordinance.

Appearance. Local laws usually do not dictate what a fence must look like. There are rare exceptions, such as in the community of seaside, Florida. There, an extraordinary ordinance requires a white picket fence on each property.

But in most places, owners are free to choose how their fences look. Occasionally, an eccentric owner puts up such an ugly fence that the neighbors hope it's against the law because of its appearance. A hideous fence could reflect intent to annoy a neighbor, and if it is useless to the owner, it may be an illegal "spite fence".

The appearance of a fence does matter in another situation - when it is not maintained and becomes a real eyesore, violating a blighted-property ordinance. A deteriorated fence falls into this category. A crumbling stone wall, a sagging chain-link fence or a broken or graffiti-covered board fence may all be blighted property, depending on the ordinance. A dilapidated fence may also violate an ordinance prohibiting an owner from allowing a dangerous condition to exist on his or her property.

For suggestions on how to resolve disputes with your neighbors, listen to SmartLaw Message #762.

This message is based on adapted excerpts appearing in the Los Angeles Times from the book, "neighbor law: fences, trees, boundaries and noise" by Cora Jordan, published by Nolo press in Berkeley, California. To obtain a copy call Nolo press toll-free at 1-800-992-6656 or visit their website at

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