When it's hard to love thy neighbor Mediation can help find a middle ground for enemies next door

February 09, 1997|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

A Waverly woman erects a chain-link fence and plants flowering vines. A neighbor in the rowhouse next door takes a weed-whacker to the plants.

An Essex woman, for years at the center of neighborhood tensions, sinks her teeth into another woman's neck. Witnesses compare the assault to a wild dog attack.

In Columbia, a man kills a former neighbor. Police look for a motive -- and find one in a lingering dispute over a parking space.

The Bible tell us to love our neighbors as ourselves, but not everybody has gotten the message. Just ask almost any judge, police officer, prosecutor or dispute mediator: Good fences don't always make for good neighbors.

Sometimes, mediation can defuse a volatile situation. But for every handshake, there seem to be a dozen war stories of embittered neighbors locked in door-to-door combat.

And, if left untreated, these scrapes can lead to loss of life and limb.

And so it was that John F. Fader II, a veteran Baltimore County judge, addressed two warring Perry Hall families whose feud includes countercharges of harassment, allegations of hit-and-run driving, a voodoo doll and at least one strategically placed dead rabbit.

"You just get out there and flip a coin to decide who's going to move," the judge told the Sneads and the Novoas in June. "Heads, tails and somebody moves. That way, nobody gets killed."

The tales go on and on, and sometimes are notable for a brush with celebrity. For instance, an actor from the "Homicide" television series was arrested in December in the Canton area of Baltimore after allegedly firing a gun into the air during an argument with a neighbor over parking.

Rarely settled

From a police viewpoint, refereeing the disputes is a time-consuming -- and rarely successful -- exercise. And the courts, where judges once set "peace bonds" to hold the prospect of cash penalties against habitual troublemakers, usually don't fare much better in trying to rein in the Neighbors From Hell.

But more and more, battling neighbors are following the tradition of the Quakers, seeking middle ground through mediation, experts say.

Lorig Charkoudian, director of the fledgling Community Mediation Program at the Safe and Smart Center in Baltimore, says the process works because combatants, with guidance from a mediator, come up with a solution. "You don't need someone with a thousand degrees to tell you how to live your life."

Mediators are well-acquainted with the most common sources of neighbor disputes. Property lines, falling leaves, junked cars and half-finished home improvement projects fuel many fights. So do children and pets.

And noise -- whether from a teen-age, would-be Jimi Hendrix with a guitar and an amp, or from children playing -- drives some people crazy.

In suburbia, trouble often follows portable basketball hoops that are set up in cul-de-sacs, says Karen Keyser, coordinator of the Towson-based Baltimore Area Mediation Project. With hoops come basketballs. Bouncing basketballs.

"People don't like that noise -- 'Da-dun, da-dun, da-dun,' " she says.

Some disputes take strange twists, say mediators, police officers and judges. There are the neighbors who engage in light-and-sound shows to rival the psychological warfare preceding the arrest of Panama's Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.

Then there are those who wait until the enemies next door settle in for a cookout, and turn on the lawn mower -- or even a snow blower. Which is not quite as bad as the Arizona man who collected the calling cards left in his yard by a neighbor's cat -- and lobbed the missiles toward the guests, and the grill, when the neighbor staged a barbecue.

Animals seem to inspire some of the more creative counter-offensives. Keyser recalls the Owings Mills man who used the small, color-coded flags seen at construction sites to mark the various land mines left by various dogs. He then wrote letters to the offending pet owners, she said.

Another man, she said, submitted as evidence videotapes of cats relieving themselves on his lawn. Nine cassettes worth of tape.

Sometimes, the mediators can hardly keep a straight face when fielding grievances.

Maj. Kevin L. Sanzenbacher, a Baltimore County police officer who helped organize the Baltimore Area Mediation Project, recalls one woman's complaint that a neighbor coughed at her "in an irritating fashion."

"The mediator said, 'What did you do in return?' " Sanzenbacher recalls. "She said, 'I gave her the finger.' "

And some people are clearly insane. What do you tell people who want to know what to do when their neighbors beam radio signals into their heads?

"You tell them, 'You put on your aluminum cap,' " says Nancy Hirshman, director of Anne Arundel County's Mediation Center.

Even some of the solutions seem odd. Keyser says one man, annoyed with neighbors who couldn't seem to remember which day was trash day, agreed to take over garbage duties.

Still at odds

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