Putting Up With The Jones
July 18th, 2004
The New York Times
Author: Bob Morris
If things go as planned, my partner and I will soon be closing on a little weekend house on a pretty street in a country village upstate. Not long ago, the new neighbors were applauding us as we drove up to meet with the owner. I guess they see us as the kind of neighbors they like: Tasteful, not around much, without kids.
"We keep an eye on each other's homes," said the elderly lady in a housedress from across the street who has flags on her picket fence, "but we never go inside them."
That's good, we thought. " This is the nicest block of people," said another neighbor, who then told use about each one. Did we really want to hear all that? And what exactly did he mean by a "serenity fountain" he was planning to build just behind our property line? For the last two weeks, I've been back in the city, obsessing over the friendly neighbor and his fountain.
Is he going to want to be friends? Are we going to have to build a fence to protect our privacy, one that risks annoying him and starting a feud? Well, I wouldn't be the first. In San Francisco in the 1880's - 30 years before Robert Frost wrote about good fences making good neighbors - the railroad baron Charles Crocker built what was called the Crocker Spite Fence to shut out a neighbor who had refused to sell him his house and land. The neighbor responded by painting a skull and bones on his roof to curse Crocker.
Ever since, a number of states have passed spite fence laws that protect homeowners against barriers built with "malicious" intent by neighbors. One court in California even extended the definition to include newly planted rows of trees that block views.
"With neighbors in the country, it's always something," said Martha McCully, a magazine editor from Manhattan whose country home is on a quaint East Hampton lane, and whose elderly neighbor sometimes loiters outside unappetizingly in a bra.
Ah summertime, when the folks next door move outside and into your space. The smell of grilled meat wafts into the yards of vegetarians. Children in someone's newly installed pool scream "Marco! Polo!" In the Hamptons, Sue Harder, known as the Dark Skies Lady, calls in complaints to the environmental board about neighbors polluting the heavens with outdoor lights. At least she doesn't have to worry about the stray bullets found by a couple who closed on a big house in Wainscott, which they didn't realize was adjacent to a gun club.
In Westchester, meanwhile, my brother sits by his beautiful slate pool on a hill under a towering hulk of a new home. He has as his new weekend neighbor an entertainment mogul who tried to buy my brother off his property for less than what it cost eight years ago, then suggested he cut down a tree blocking his view. All this was done through minions.
"He never came to me directly," my brother said.
That's no way to treat a new neighbor, suggests Steven Cohen, whose Negotiating Skills Company counsels businesses and runs an advice Web site that receives countless questions about that kind of neighbor trouble he knows from personal experience.
At his home near Gloucester, Mass., one neighbor went "stark raving bonkers" about a natural gas pipe Mr. Cohen installed within view on a wall. "People don't like surprises," said Mr. Cohen. Who knows a man so intimidated by his neighbor - a policeman who parks his patrol car on the neighbor's property - that he is planning to put up a fence while the officer is away.
"At least your neighbor is gentleman enough to tell you he's planning to build his serenity fountain," Mr. Cohen told me. "And since he's volunteered the information, you have a right to ask more about it." I suppose I d do. But do I want to get into it with him? Maybe instead of looking at my new country neighbors as people to fence out, I should just concede that they exist and even be grateful that they want to be friendly.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. Even a serenity fountain.
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