Good Neighbors. Great Lawyers.

Property rights: approach nuisance neighbors with care

By Johns, Flaherty & Collins, SC on Saturday, October 13th 2007

Whether you rent or own your home, chances are at some point you will encounter a problem with a neighbor. Noise and boundary issues are among the most common, but neighbor complaints can run the gamut from unpleasant odors and mosquito-infested bird baths to dilapidated fences and fierce pets. Whatever the case, nuisance laws provide your best shot at continuing to enjoy both your property and your neighbors.

Nuisance laws are designed to protect your right of enjoyment and include both public and private actions. As the name suggests, public nuisances are those that interfere with the reasonable expectations and rights of the general public. Examples include violating noise ordinances, failing to remove ice or snow from sidewalks, setting off fireworks in the streets and harboring vicious dogs.

Private nuisances, on the other hand, refer to those that impact only one individual or a very small group of people. Private nuisances may include unkempt dog kennels or loud televisions or stereos.

If you believe one of your neighbors is a nuisance, these steps can help you solve your problem, often with neighborly good will still intact.

First, remember the golden rule. If your actions are offending a neighbor, you would likely prefer they simply mention it to you rather than calling the police or immediately filing a lawsuit. Be the kind of neighbor you’d like to have and before trying anything else, simply approach the person about the issue in a friendly way.

If the neighbor does not respond well or at all to your concerns, consider talking to other nearby neighbors who may be experiencing the same nuisance. Ask them about their experiences and discuss your options and how you may proceed together.

A polite but firm letter is a good next step. The more neighbors who sign it, the more compelling it will be to the recipient. You can make it even stronger if the offending neighbor is in violation of condominium, homeowners’ association or planned subdivision rules.

If the offending party still does not respond, you have a number of options:

  • If the nuisance violates local ordinances, call the police who will investigate and may pursue criminal charges.
  • If the nuisance violates planning or zoning regulations, file a complaint with city or county officials. The result could be a notice of violation and citation.
  • If you believe the annoyance meets the legal definition of a nuisance, and other, lesser efforts have failed, consult with an attorney. An experienced real estate attorney can help you explore your options, determine whether the issue qualifies as a nuisance and advise you of legal remedies, such as small claims court or a formal injunction to stop the behavior.

Nuisance actions are often sent to mediation. Whether in mediation or in court, several factors will be considered, including the location of the annoyance, applicable zoning restrictions and whether the situation qualifies as an actual — not potential or future — nuisance. In the end, courts and/or mediators will consider the interests of both parties and seek a balance that will minimize the negative impact to both parties.

Whatever the nuisance, remember you could be neighbors for a very long time. The best resolution is one which limits the nuisance without limiting friendly relations.

Reprinted with permission from Holmen Courier and Onalaska Community Life, October 12, 2007.

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