Organising an annual street party or delivering a batch of muffins to a new neighbour could save you thousands in future legal costs.
Disputes between neighbours were more likely to turn nasty when people hadn’t done the groundwork to create a good neighbourly relationship, Arbitrators and Mediators Institute of NZ executive director Deborah Hart said.
This week, the High Court rejected an appeal for compensation from a New Plymouth man who fell out with his neighbour over a pile of soil that was moved on to his property while a house was being built in 2013.
ANDY JACKSON/Fairfax NZ
Another well publicised case in January 2016 saw the Environment Court order the removal of a wall-like “play structure” built by a neighbour that blocked harbour views from Peter and Sylvia Aitchison’s Wellington property.
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Hart said mediators saw a fair few disputes between neighbours over issues like fences and boundary lines, many with not a lot of money involved.
MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ
“Often the dispute that is the face of the issue is not actually the issue. The dispute that is in front of you could be over a fence but what the neighbour is really upset about is the noise from other neighbour’s kids playing in the backyard very early in the mornings,” she said.
“The real problem is communication, or the lack of it.”
Hart said the best defence was to become a good neighbour.
“If you’ve already got a relationship with them, it’s a lot easier to pop your head over the fence to mention their tree roots are growing into your drain.”
If necessary, she advised, get an independent third person to help mediate.
“If you don’t do these things, you risk ending up in court, that’s going to be stressful and expensive and you don’t know if you’re going to win, even if you have a good case.
“You may be able to reach a resolution that’s not a legal resolution but its a better way. Your neighbour apologising for the tree roots getting in your drains, that’s not a legal resolution but it may help you feel a lot better.”
Solving an issue amicably was always better.
“You can win in the court over the fence but you still have to live next door to each other and that’s not pleasant. Everyone wants to be able to come home and it is their sanctuary.”
A man who liked being naked in his house with the curtains open was one of the more unusual complaints heard by Katrina Brunton, New Plymouth District Council’s customer and regulatory solutions manager.
The police ended up dealing with him, but in most cases, staff helped mediate between neighbours with differences, she said.
“Sometimes people just want some help to deal with it, they’re not confident enough to pop next door and have that conversation.”
Old traditions of welcoming newcomers to a street with some home baking, and having annual street barbecues were one way to encourage this, she said.
“Ultimately what we want is neighbours to be neighbourly. It’s good to know who your neighbours are.”
Lonely dogs barking, crowing roosters and bees pooping on the neighbours’ washing are some of the more common complaints, along with smoking fires and boundary disputes.
Complaint numbers are fairly static and there’s not much difference year on year, she said.
The NPDC dealt with 5500 noise complaints in the 2016/17 year, not including barking dogs, which have their own category (there were 727 barking dog complaints in the last financial year).
Nicole Wood, senior researcher for Greenstone TV, which made eight seasons of reality TV series Neighbours At War said in some cases the people they worked with had not actually spoken to their neighbours about the issue and sometimes, had been at war for so long, the initial reason for the dispute was forgotten.
“Just good old common sense and manners goes a long way. Try to talk to people, person to person, calmly. Nobody will respond well to someone barging in, all guns blazing. Have turns talking, be polite and actually listen. Sometimes things get lost in translation.”