Theres help when disputes arise between neighbors

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

If you're lucky, you get along well with your neighbors.

You lend each other tools, pick up each other's mail, look after each other's kids and may even get together occasionally for a potluck or barbecue.

But for the rest of us, neighbors can often be a source of irritation and frustration. Who among us hasn't cursed the zealous neighbor who runs his chain saw at 7 a.m. on a Saturday or the little old lady who allows her terrier to fertilize every lawn on the block?

Most people, of course, want to have peaceful and cordial relations with their neighbors. But what do you do when you're not able to resolve a conflict with your neighbor?

Do you take the matter to court? Do you put your house up for sale and move to a condo? Or do you retaliate and make life equally miserable for your neighbors in the hopes that they'll pack up and move?

None of these is the ideal solution. The cost and hassle associated with suing or moving is simply not worth it.

A better solution is to try to work things out peacefully with your neighbor, using common sense and courtesy. Despite popular misconception, most neighbor disputes can be resolved reasonably without an injunction from the "People's Court" or Judge Judy.

Although neighbor disputes may seem common today, they are hardly a product of the modern world. Concerns over property date back thousands of years when farmers, sharecroppers and landowners continually squabbled over property rights. And records show that courts were faced with these dilemmas as far back as the 13th century.

Fortunately, city laws and ordinances are much clearer today than they used to be. In fact, you would probably be surprised at how detailed and strict many city ordinances are. There are laws governing everything from fallen fruit to obstruction of view — and everything in between.

If your neighbor is doing something that is extremely annoying or bothersome to you, chances are it is probably against the law — although he or she may not even realize that it's creating a disturbance.

But before you confront your neighbor, it's a good idea to check the local ordinances to see if there is a law protecting your rights. You can do this by visiting the public library, city hall, county courthouse or county law library.

Once you locate the ordinance that addresses your particular problem, make a copy to take home with you. If your particular problem is not covered by an existing ordinance, you can talk to a member of the city council or board of supervisors about the possibility of getting a statute added.

In her book "Neighbor Law" (Nolo Press), attorney Cora Jordan offers practical step-by-step strategies for resolving neighbor disputes before they escalate into bigger problems. Although confronting a neighbor is never easy, there are ways to make the task less unpleasant and more productive.

When presenting a problem or complaint, try to be as amicable and nonjudgmental as possible. Raising your voice and making accusations will only make your neighbor more defensive and less cooperative. Keep in mind that your neighbor may not even be aware that he or she is creating a disturbance.

State what the problem is, how it has affected you (and others in the neighborhood, if applicable) and offer a resolution. Try to work out a solution that you both can live with.

For example, "Would you be willing to share the cost of having this tree trimmed" or "Can you keep your dog inside at night so that he won't keep us awake?" are reasonable requests.

In most cases, neighbors are willing to help remedy the situation. After all, they are also interested in keeping the peace and maintaining good will.

However, if your neighbor refuses to cooperate or thinks your complaints are unreasonable, you should send him a certified letter, stating the complaint in writing and include a copy of the relevant statute.

Be sure to keep a copy of this letter for future reference. You may also want to report the violation to the appropriate city department, which can issue fines or take measures to correct the problem.

If this second attempt doesn't get you anywhere, you have two choices: You can go to court or try mediation.

Most experts recommend mediation as a first step since legal action can be expensive and time-consuming. In mediation, you and your neighbor work out an agreement with the help of a trained, neutral third party. Mediators are not necessarily lawyers, but they have undergone extensive training.

The role of the mediator is to hear each person's side of the story and to suggest a reasonable compromise.

Unlike a court judge, a mediator has no power to impose a solution or require any action. Once an agreement is reached, the mediator will put it in writing, but it is up to each individual to abide by the resolution.

Hiring a mediator is much cheaper than hiring a lawyer. In some communities, there are free mediation services. Check with the small claims clerk at the courthouse, your county law library or local bar association.

If you live in a planned development, the homeowners' association may offer mediation services to its members. Private mediators are listed in the yellow pages.

If mediation doesn't work — or if you are intent on taking legal action — you can sue your neighbor in small claims for what is called a private nuisance.

Keep in mind that the amount you can sue for is limited (between $2,500 and $5,000 in most states) and that most small claims courts can only award money.

If you want a judge to order your neighbor to do something, such as remove an overgrown tree or stop playing loud music, you will probably have to go to regular court, which will require hiring a lawyer.