When neighbour disputes turn ugly
By Kirsten McMahon, AdvocateDaily.com Managing Editor
The idea that a person’s home is their castle, combined with the concept that proximity breeds contempt, can lead people to take extreme positions about what appears to be everyday neighbour issues, says Toronto mediator and settlement counsel Mitchell Rose.
“In each of these disputes, whether it’s a fence going inches over the boundary line or somebody creating a noise nuisance, it can be taken personally,” says Rose, partner with Stancer Gossin Rose LLP. “These acts could be seen as a threat to someone's psychological — and even personal — sense of safety.”
He tells AdvocateDaily.com he's come across disputes where there have been physical altercations. They have started out as quite minor, but they can certainly escalate, Rose says, pointing to a Vancouver Sun report about a mass shooting in Penticton, B.C. that is believed to have started as a neighbourhood dispute.
“The four victims — two men and two women — and the person who turned himself in were all known to each other,” the Sun reports.
The wife of one of the victims told reporters the shootings were likely linked to a neighbourhood dispute and said she and her husband lived alongside the estranged wife of the man who turned himself in to police.
“We cut a tree down in our yard, and she had a fit; so anytime we did anything she had a fit, so we don’t talk to her,” the woman told reporters. “She called the cops because my husband was putting rocks in between our properties, and maybe his big toe went on her property.”
Police told a news conference it appeared that all four victims were targeted, but were still trying to find the motive.
The accused, a 68-year-old civil engineer, made his first appearance in Penticton court on April 16, where he was charged with three counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder, the Star Vancouver reports.
Rose says while the Penticton shooting is a rare example, warring neighbours frequently behave in ways that may seem extreme to everyone else, and can include acts of violence, attempts to shame someone or turn community opinion against the offending party.
There is often a long history between the parties with a lot going on both above and below the surface, says Rose, who frequently acts as a mediator and lawyer in neighbour disputes.
“Usually, there was an attempt at communication at some point, and each side feels as though the other doesn't listen or understand,” he says. “The situation can become a perfect storm.”
Disputes over fences frequently come up, Rose says, because they offer people a sense of security and privacy. “If you do something to threaten the fence, it can be taken as a personal attack.”
Even if you can control your own behaviour, Rose says you can’t control the behaviour of the person living next to you.
While not all disputes turn violent, but they can devolve into passive-aggressive stunts.
Rose points to the news story of a California man who decided to throw a “party” with a bunch of naked mannequins in his yard to taunt a neighbour who had called city officials and complained about the height of his fence.
Closer to home, an Ontario man who was fed up with his neighbour’s dogs barking at all hours of the day went to their home in the middle of the night where he barked and howled, the Ottawa Citizen reports.
Police said the man’s barking and howling outside his neighbour’s window made the dogs inside that house bark excessively.
“It’s inevitable that there's going to be some potential conflict when you live in close proximity to someone else,” Rose says. “But when it happens, it's best to do something constructive about the situation. Often, these over-the-top reactions are a result of feeling powerless.”
In Rose’s mediation practice, he says giving warring neighbours the opportunity to be heard can help reduce those feelings.
“It’s not always possible to get your day in court, nor is it necessarily desirable because of the time and cost,” he says. “I provide the opportunity for parties to be listened to and for them to actually work on a solution.
Rose adds that as a mediator, he can help create a safe space for participants in acrimonious or high-conflict situations.
"This can include separating the parties so the mediation does not take place in the same office or building, or by using video conferencing technology," he says.