Robert Frost said “Good fences make good neighbors.”
It was a gorgeous property that had recently sold. 10 acres of blooming redbuds and dogwoods, a small pond stocked with catfish and bass and a beautiful newer two story brick home waiting for the next owner. It was cradled by rolling hills and valleys with a scenic county road landscaped with farms and homesteads that created something akin to the opening scene of a movie.Urban dwellers commonly seek to retreat to the type of haven described, away from the pressures of the city, the high cost of living and the general feeling of conformity . They see it as a serene environment for their children ; someplace they could entertain guests. Yet conflicts between the new owners and their neighbors can begin and fester or quickly escalate until it becomes a perpetual hell on earth, culminating in confrontations, threats and lawsuits.
While all stories of conflict between land owners contain two sides plus the truth, the focus here is the rural feuds; why it appears to be increasing and what can be done to minimize it.
As more areas are affected by Urban Flight, the clash between cultures and expectations are increasing. The urban/suburban pilgrim has a predefined idea of what their new lives should be and storybook ideals tend to be naive. There is a disconnect from the minutia of existing in the middle of nowhere. They see a Thomas Kinkade painting with an aseptic environment and for some those sort of expectations end in a bitter shock to the system.
Urban transplants typically aren’t accustomed to how the gears actually turn once the stop signs disappear. The solitude can magnify what was only yesterday unseen, unheard and unsmelled. The lines between the new life and the old life blur and the instinct is to hang on, even trying to recreate the old life, even if it was part of the reason you left it to begin with. Similarly, those who have spent their entire existence farming or homesteading can also struggle with the realities of new neighbors and shorter distances between mailboxes.
Typical sources of contention by a city mouse might be
- Loose/barking dogs
- Noise-ATVs, chainsaws, farm machinery operating outside of what they perceive to be normal hours
- Brush fires, smoke
- guns and hunting
- poor road conditions
- Obstructed views
- flies, mosquitoes, mice, rats, possums, coyotes, coons, skunks
- odors from livestock
- pesticides in the air
- Easements and property lines
- Junk vehicles, unsightly properties and a lack of uniformity among houses on the same road ie a tract home next to a single wide trailer, a mcmansion next to a shack, etc
- Well water and septic systems
The country mouse might have quite a different list to frown upon
- More and faster traffic
- More trash
- Less privacy
- Property tax increases
- Restrictions on typical farming practices
- Introduction of regulations and ordinances
- Excessive exterior lighting
“Pastoral” living conditions are in the eye of the beholder and for every eye is a different viewpoint. Many well meaning people have transplanted into the country only to be treated by the old guard as if they were”renters” or somehow had less of a right to exist on their property as the ones who were there “when you couldn’t see another house for miles.” The current residents resent the intrusion and seek to protect their sense of entitlement; you and your city ways are a threat to them. That same transplanted family may have spent their entire weekend inside with the windows closed trying to escape the smoke from the bales of rotting molded hay you were burning, oblivious that they were upwind.
The key to minimizing many conflicts that arise is to get in front of them. Don’t wait 6 months to introduce yourself. Don’t let an issue fester. If you are unsure about stepping on your neighbors land, send over a card or a note (and some cookies). A pattern I have seen among rural folks is to make get togethers rare but lengthy. In 7 years I met one neighbor who lived a 1/4 mile down the road less than 4 or 5 times. In each occurrence we stood in his barn or beside the road or parked in our trucks for maybe an hour, maybe all morning. But soon after that initial visit everyone told me he spoke of us as if he had known us his whole life. It is a pattern to initiate and evaluate. Once they satisfy their concerns your not a nar do well or a threat you are good to go.
A couple observations based on personal experience-
When it comes to fences, build them early and often, especially if your neighbor’s house is close. Shrubs and trees are great alternatives if you need a buffer zone. If you wait until there are conflicts, putting up barriers can be seen as an affront and they will always be a reminder of the incident that caused it. Doing so before the fact and being open as to why is a better alternative. Before long, it will seem like the fence was always there.
Pay for a survey prior to closing on your new home. 7.04 acres that was parceled 100 years ago and cut into the shape of Florida isn’t as easy to determine boundaries as a 100’x 150′ lot in a subdivision. Make sure the lines are clearly marked and have copies in case you need to hand them out.
Understand what an easement is, who has rights to it and maintains it. Don’t assume.
Recognize that there are problems and there are realities. Loose dogs getting into your hen house is a problem and can be remedied. An increase in population and traffic in your neck of the woods is a reality that is here to stay.
Calling the police in order to prevent an escalation when you feel threatened is the best course of action. Calling the county code enforcement, health inspector, the fire department, the IRS etc in order to punish your neighbor or exact revenge for a slight is ill advised. Don’t take actions you can’t take back. Lawsuits and litigation, while they sometimes become the last and only option, rarely results in a true winner due to the cost it exacts in money, stress and any hope of a reconciliation.
If your dream home looks perfect in April, consider the area in August when the trucks are adding rock and oil to the roads, or harvest season when the fields are in a perpetual dust storm. The hog farm didn’t smell like that when it was cold out, now every day it is pungent and heavy and nauseating, and you can’t do a thing about it. States now give farmers a basic “right to farm” without the fear of lawsuits brought by offended neighbors. As one judge remarked while dismissing a lawsuit against a hog farmer, “pork production generates odors which cannot be prevented, and so long as the human race consumes pork, someone must tolerate the smell.”
Know your limitations before you move into the sticks or before you decide to sell that piece of ground next door. What are you are willing to accept and how far are you willing to go to keep peace?
No matter how many times the test is repeated, the country mouse and the city mouse will continue trying to step onto the trap to capture the cheese rather than working together for the same prize.
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