The boors next door

Neighborhood etiquette means turning down the noise, curbing the dog and trying to be civil

January 13, 2008|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,Special to the Sun

This past summer, a Baltimore City condo owner was sound asleep when the racket outside his window jolted him awake.

Groggy but curious, he lifted the bedroom blinds only to spy his new neighbors out back, playing what he described as a noisy game of pick-up basketball - at midnight. Once he got up, the 50-something homeowner couldn't get back to sleep, and he had to get up early for work the next morning.

Neighborhood etiquette, a subjective term that covers a broad spectrum of community conduct, has stirred renewed attention of late, locally and nationwide. From a new neighborhood nuisance law in Baltimore City, to a popular new Web site about "rotten" neighbors that's getting millions of hits, people are talking about their neighbors.

Some tales from the home front aren't so pretty.

Rowdy neighbors, filthy neighbors. Folks who blare their music, fail to clean up after their pets, put trash out on wrong collection days, leave broken-down cars in their driveways or ugly contraptions in the backyard. Neighbors who rarely or never speak.

In one Columbia community, a dispute over a backyard pool led to a more than seven-year feud between two neighbors, including lawsuits, criminal complaints and a spitting incident.

"Many people buy a home because of location, some are concerned about crime, others don't want to live around people who play their radios too loud," says Deborah Ford, director of the bachelor of science program in real estate and economic development at the University of Baltimore. "Really, it's about your values, and what expectations are for different types of people."

Yet perceptions about communities and the residents who inhabit them, adds Ford, can be important, potentially affecting property values and more.

"There are strict laws about housing discrimination, so Realtors can't do or say anything that would deter someone from moving to a community," she says. But that doesn't mean residents already living there can't take action if they're fed up with their neighbors.

"If people get tired," says Ford, "some of them will decide, `I'm moving out.'"

That's already happened in one southwest Baltimore neighborhood, according to Baltimore City Councilwoman Helen Holton, who represents the 8th District. She says a few families made the choice to "sell and move out" because of unbearable neighbors.

"We had one property in my district with the neighbors from hell," says Holton, who says the complaints included unfounded allegations of drug activity. "The owners moved out, brought in tenants, then basically took the attitude, `What happens is not my problem.'"

And that house wasn't Holton's only concern. "Baltimore is a college town. Some kids are drinking, they have these kegger parties. ... There's loud music, and the next day they wind up sprawled on lawns."

To tackle some of these issues, Holton introduced legislation before the City Council in June; Mayor Sheila Dixon signed it into law in November.

The neighborhood nuisance law holds property owners responsible for tenants whose disorderly conduct, such as loud noise or profanity, affects their neighbors. Penalties for violations of the new law can include fines up to $500 or 90 days in jail.

"It's about how we protect quality of life," says Holton, adding that the law represents a partnership between city police and housing departments. "People pay a lot of property taxes, and they deserve a level of quality."

Enforcing covenants

Some communities try to maintain a level of quality through the use of restrictive covenants - a set of rules spelled out in one's mortgage that may address issues such as whether a homeowner can erect a fence or build a shed. Violations can result in action that includes foreclosure.

Torrey Jacobsen, president of the Greater Crofton Council Inc., a group of community associations in Anne Arundel County, views covenants as something of a mixed bag. But he believes they're helpful in maintaining both peace and property values.

"You don't want someone painting their house bright pink," says the businessman and married father of three, who purchased his home in Crofton Manor - where houses can sell in the half-million dollar range - some 17 years ago.

Saying "covenants work most of the time" to ward off problems, Jacobsen adds that, if disputes do arise, a court order can be used to enforce the document. But he prefers fostering neighborly relationships, so that such actions don't become necessary.

"I don't have problems with my neighbors," says Jacobsen, although he does admit the covenant has prevented him from parking his beloved camper out front. "It's not like a big RV, but I can't keep it on the property. I have to pay to store it in a garage. Oh well, everyone has rules."

Rating the neighbors

But the "rules" in neighborhoods without covenants tend to be open to interpretation. That can sometimes lead to conflict and resentment among neighbors.

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