Bad fence, crazy neighbor
September 1, 2014 4:08 PM   Subscribe

I'm repairing a section of picket fence that I had built ten years ago between my yard and the property next door. The fence fell down last spring. My neighbor didn't say anything about the fence or the repairs or property lines until the contractor I hired to repair the fence started putting new posts in the original fence post holes. Then she went even more nuts than she already was.

The fence being repaired was built in 2004 to replace an old chain-link fence that was mostly missing, and I put it exactly where the former fence was, so that it lined up with the end post of the picket fence that enclosed the front and other side of my front yard. I did this with the knowledge and permission of my then-next-door neighbors.

My current neighbor bought the property in 2006 with this fence already in place. This is not the first time she's had issues with a fence (and issues in general) - one of the first things she said to me was that the previous owners must have removed a section of fence between our houses and taken it with them when they moved from Colorado to Pennsylvania, after they sold her the house. This is absurd on several counts: 1) there was no fence between our houses (only between the front and back yards), 2) my former neighbors would not do such a dishonest thing, and 3) who would dig up and move a fence across the country?

First she sent me a certified letter telling me I was building a fence on her property, and I must stop/get a building permit (I don't need one - I'm not building a fence, I'm repairing an existing fence). She harasses my contractor. She calls and leaves messages demanding that I "stop building a fence on her property." She claims she had a survey done that shows the fence is on her property, but she has never produced the survey. She alternately calls it her fence and my fence. By now you have guessed that she's more than a little bit unstable.

She filed a complaint with the city. A city inspector came out, listened to both of us, looked at the fence, and gave me the go-ahead to complete the repairs, and also told me I should definitely make my neighbor pay for half the cost of fixing the fence, since it is a shared boundary. He also mentioned that if my neighbor keeps harassing me about it, he can't help me - that is a "civil matter."

I thought that would settle it, but no - my neighbor hired an attorney, who sent me a letter demanding that I remove the fence entirely (at my expense) and pay half the cost of a survey to determine the property line (even though she said she's already had it done). Mind you, if the fence WERE on her property, it'd be by no more than half an inch - the fence lines up with the boundary line fence that she had built a few years ago between our houses, which I had no problem with. I realized this morning that I was afraid to go out and paint the new fence posts for fear of her attacking me. This has to stop.

So my question is: How do I get this unreasonable person to knock it off? I am 99% sure I can win if this goes to court, and probably get punitive damages and a restraining order as well as half the cost of the fence, but I don't want the hassle. I just want to fix the fence in peace and avoid my cray-cray neighbor as much as possible. Of course, it would also be nice if she moved, so I'd welcome suggestions on getting her to do that, too.
posted by caryatid to Human Relations (29 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
She has a lawyer, now you have to get a lawyer. I'd advise writing down everything you can remember with dates and names (such as the city inspector's recommendation) and doing a dispassionate mind dump to your lawyer. I'd keep out calling her crazy and let things speak for themselves so this doesn't look like a nasty dispute and you come out look as cool headed as possible.

I would keep every correspondence so that after this is all resolved, or while this is resolved, you could seek a restraining order (under advice of your lawyer of course).

Sorry, this sucks, but you don't want to do anything at this point to jeopardize yourself now that she has lawyers and certified letters involved. I'd also proactively be getting contact information from your last neighbors and seeing if they can send you a written letter attesting they did not take the fence. Just any documentation you can do now to help your lawyer out will help speed things along and hopefully keep costs down.
posted by geoff. at 4:20 PM on September 1, 2014 [15 favorites]

In my neck of the woods, fences have to be built inside the property line by a noticeable margin. I about lost my mind when my next door neighbor built a 7ft tall stockade fence around their back yard. I went to check the property markers.(we have metal stobs) and sure enough the fence was 6 inches or more on their side of the property. I would check with the codes and have the property surveyed for piece of mind.
posted by PJMoore at 4:24 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am 99% sure I can win if this goes to court, and probably get punitive damages and a restraining order as well as half the cost of the fence, but I don't want the hassle.

She has escalated this to a lawyer. You cannot do anything but the same in return, or else even if you're right, there is a distinct possibility that when it eventually does go to court, you'll be on the hook because you went ahead despite pending legal action.
posted by Etrigan at 4:25 PM on September 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

What I'd do is stop dealing with the fence, pending the survey. Once you have the survey showing the fence on your property, you can then shove it down her pie hole saying, "I'm going to repair my fence now."

OTOH, if it turns out it's right on the property line, or worse on her property, then at least you didn't spend money for nothing.

Frankly I don't understand why, given the nature of your neighbor, you wouldn't WANT a survey.

Also, go through your real estate papers and/or head on down to city hall, there may be survey on the books already.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:49 PM on September 1, 2014 [14 favorites]

I would get a new survey done. Depending on the properties of the ground, the markers may have shifted. You don't want anyone basing their legal opinions on the current position of the markers. You want to know where they're supposed to be. The best thing to do is hire a surveyor to get the current lay of the land so to speak. If you know any general contractors, they could probably get you in touch with a licensed surveyor.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:16 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

A survey costs real money -- $2000 where I live. I think you should consult a lawyer. He might say the burden of proof (of encroachment) is on your neighbor. Or maybe that because the fence has been there x years, it doesn't matter whose property it's on. It won't take long to find out what your rights are.
posted by wryly at 5:37 PM on September 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

You can't beat crazy. Document everything that she does. Ask the contractor to also document. Send this information to her lawyer and then ask if he would like to mediate. Also contact your local police department. Ask them to come to your house to fill out the report. Make certain that she is home when you show the nice officer the fence. You feel threatened by this person and you deserve protection.
posted by myselfasme at 6:21 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

A simple boundary survey is less expensive than one that needs to show the house, easements, etc. If you do contact someone for a survey, make sure that you specify that you're looking for a boundary survey only. It won't cost thousands of dollars.

If you go outside, take your cell phone with you. If she comes out to harass you, start recording. Encourage your contractor to do the same. Don't engage, just record.

If you have the means to do so, you could also offer to buy her house. But this part is important! She shouldn't know that you're the potential purchaser. Perhaps set up an LLC (can be done through the Sec. of State's website in many states these days, but in this situation I would consult an attorney) and have someone else submit the offer to her on the LLCs behalf. Then you could rent it out or re-sell it. You say that you are in Denver, which is a hot, hot market for rentals. Could be a good investment, you never know.

This sounds so stressful and aggravating. I'm sorry.
posted by Ostara at 6:39 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think at this point, regardless of how she's acting emotionally, she has raised a valid question about where the property line is. It would be unwise to continue the project without answering that question.

Given that you need that answer, I think her (lawyer) offering to split the cost with you is a good deal. I mean, she could wait until you're finished and then make you tear your fence down if it turned out she was right.

I'm not sure I'd get a lawyer right away automatically. Maybe that's dumb, I don't know. I do know when someone raises a show-stopper question like that, "I think I'm right" isn't good enough. Get the survey.
posted by ctmf at 6:41 PM on September 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

I used to build fences in and around Calgary, a city that's probably pretty similar to Denver. When we were building a residential fence, the first thing we'd do would be to find the survey stake - an iron rod hammered into the ground, often buried - that identified each corner of the property. We'd then stretch a line between the survey stakes which would mark the centre line of the fence we were going to build.
The situation might be the same for your property. If you can find these stakes yourself and stretch a line between them you'll be able to see, and show, whether or not your your fence is in the right location. This might be enough to resolve the situation without having a full survey done.
posted by Flashman at 7:21 PM on September 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think you should probably get the boundary survey done. This will prove that you're 100% legal (or you're not - in which case better to know now). If it goes to court this is the evidence you will need to prove it's on the correct side of the fence, anyway.
posted by zug at 7:47 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just to clarify: The city inspector, the ultimate authority in these matters, approved my fence repair and told me I could go ahead with it, and dismissed her bogus complaint that I was "building a fence on her property." (Again, repairing an existing fence is not the same thing as building a new fence.) The inspector acknowledged that she was harassing me without cause and I might have to take civil action to stop her from doing so.

A lawyer's letter that does not actually threaten legal action surely cannot trump the city's ruling that my fence repair is perfectly OK. If the city inspector had told me to get a boundary survey, that would be different. But according to the city, she has no legal leg to stand on to prevent me from repairing this fence, or to force me to remove it or move it. If she has a problem, it's with the former owners (who I am still in touch with, and who will verify everything I've said).

The fence is going to be exactly where it was before I started repairs, exactly where it was when she bought her house, exactly where it was for the eight years in which she had no problem with it, in line with the fence she built on the property line. Here in Colorado, we do build fences on property lines. The fence post used to determine the placement of this section of fence has been in place for at least 60 years.
posted by caryatid at 8:25 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Lawyering up like this is just an intimidation technique and her lawyer knows it; it's why there's no specific action specified. Retain a lawyer and have him send her lawyer the city inspectors decision with the usual "drop this before you look like an idiot and we refer the matter to the state Bar". That should be a ~$300 investment, and will at least dispense with stress of possible legal action.
posted by kjs3 at 8:40 PM on September 1, 2014 [9 favorites]

Ok. Just sayin', paying for half a boundary survey now could head off expensive legal silliness later if it gets her to stand down. (Plus then, you'll need a survey.)
posted by ctmf at 8:41 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Did the city inspector approve your fence repair in writing? If so, forward the written email or documentation to the lawyer, through a lawyer.

If this was a verbal discussion on site, then follow up with the inspector via email, and ask them to provide written record of the in-person meeting on site, as well as the inspector's judgment.

Unless you have a written record, the city inspector really hasn't approved your fence repair. Approval isn't about someone saying "yeah, you can go ahead", it's about someone willing to absorb liability/make a decisive judgment on a policy.
posted by suedehead at 8:42 PM on September 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: ".. my neighbor hired an attorney, who sent me a letter demanding that I remove the fence entirely (at my expense) and pay half the cost of a survey to determine the property line (even though she said she's already had it done)."

Do not answer the letter. Do not engage her on the matter. Do not accommodate her by getting a survey. It's one thing to hire a lawyer to write a letter, and another thing entirely to bring suit. One thing is much cheaper than the other, and it is very difficult to actually compel people without bringing suit.

Finish the fence as rapidly as possible. Behave as if you have a right to be doing what you are doing. If she calls the police while the contractor is working, you'll have a problem, and might not be able to finish the fence without getting a judgement. If you can finish the fence and she does not call the police, you're in a much better position.

If you are actually afraid for your safety, from a clear or implied threat to your safety, then *you* should call the police.

IANAL, but I had a fenceline dispute with a neighbor. It is resolved to my satisfaction, without going to court, but not amicably, and very much not to my neighbor's liking.

One mistake that reasonable people make is the assumption that other people are reasonable. Accommodation does not appease unreasonable people.
posted by the Real Dan at 9:44 PM on September 1, 2014 [16 favorites]

Best answer: Ask the city inspector to confirm in writing (if he hasn't already done so) that the fence repair can go ahead and forward it to her attorney.

The attorney is acting on her instructions - she's told him the fence is on her property and this has led to him writing to you. If you provide evidence to show that the inspector is happy with you carrying out the repairs, then that might well be the end of the matter as far as the attorney is concerned.

If not, then you might need to get the boundary surveyed.
posted by essexjan at 5:26 AM on September 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Here's the thing: some neighbors are just crazy and "live for the feud". This is entertainment for her, she's having a great time planning her next move.

On top of that, it doesn't matter what the city says, because obviously (in her insane mind) they don't know what they're talking about.

You will never convince her she is wrong, you will never get her to accept that you are right. Because then the fight would be over, and keeping the fight going is exactly what she finds entertaining and rewarding. This is called "the crazy neighbor next door". If she were reasonable, she'd be "the reasonable neighbor next door".

At this point, the only interaction you have with her is to say "talk to my lawyer". If she harasses the workmen, call the cops. She is dead to you, and her estate lawyers send paperwork to your lawyers. That's it.

Basically, you're kinda screwed unless she moves away. So fix your fence, have all your ducks in a line, win in court, tell her to talk to the lawyer, pay the lawyer bills, and go through life with an asshole neighbor costing you money.

Kinda sucks, but that's what is. Best of luck.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:16 AM on September 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: This sounds frustrating and scary. I'm so sorry you have to deal with this situation when you're just trying to fix something. I think that if you're confident that you're in the right, ignoring her unless you need to call the police is a good move. I'd also suggest trying to have a witness when/if you speak to her, or if it's legal in CO, recording conversations with her. Finally, you might consider researching the process for filing a restraining order or similar civil restriction on her harassment. In no case would I suggest pausing or stopping fence construction as it will reward her behavior, however, I could be wrong about your legal standing here.

Good luck.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:26 AM on September 2, 2014

Best answer: I think you have a couple of different problems here: A property dispute, and an abusive neighbour.

Regarding the property dispute: If I were you, I'd get the city inspector's statement in writing, finish the fence, and ignore the letter until your neighbour actually files suit (at which point you should probably lawyer up).

This strategy is a touch risky, because if you're wrong, you'll have paid to repair a fence that needs to be moved/removed. But it avoids spending money (on legal fees or surveys) until such a time that you really have to.

As others have said, there's not way to make your neighbour not be crazy. But if you're as confident as you seem to be that you are in the right, the best strategy is living well, by doing what you please with your property.

Regarding the abuse: If this is true:
I was afraid to go out and paint the new fence posts for fear of her attacking me
You should seriously consider getting the police involved. Go outside and do your work. Bring your phone or other video recording equipment with you. If she starts verbally attacking you, record it. If she starts physically attacking you, go back inside and call 911. No one should have to live in fear of their neighbours.
posted by sparklemotion at 8:49 AM on September 2, 2014

Best answer: FWIW, your city inspector is probably not the final arbiter of whether your fence is in the right place. He can determine whether you need a permit or not, but the actual location of the fence is not his call (at least in any jurisdiction I'm familiar with). That's not to say he doesn't know what he's talking about, but the actual underlying dispute will be probably be resolved by a judge, township board, or commission of some kind.

That said, even if your fence is on "her" side of the property, it may not be "her" property anymore. A fence line that has been in place for at least 10 years is the start of a textbook example of adverse possession or acquiescence. There's more to it than that of course but she may have a losing argument even if she's right.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 9:51 AM on September 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

FWIW, your city inspector is probably not the final arbiter of whether your fence is in the right place.

Indeed. The city inspector represents the planning office, and their primary interest is in whether the project complies with the city's building/planning codes. While the city keeps plats and plans showing property boundaries, it's not their job (generally) to enforce boundaries except on city-owned property.

So I would not rely too heavily on what the inspector said. I recommend checking your records and then asking the city planning office if there are any surveys on file. If not, you might want to split the cost -- but only if you get an agreement, in writing, as to what you and your neighbor would do with that survey.
posted by suelac at 11:12 AM on September 2, 2014

Keep in mind the inspector isn't God. He can only determine whether there is a violation of city rules. By clearly informing you that anything further is a civil matter, he's letting you know that there is only so much he can speak for.

I'm sorry, but you may end up tied up in legal wrangling for a long time due to this lady. It's a very longstanding and thorny area of property law. You really need your own lawyer to tell you what the parameters here might be, and to communicate with that other lawyer (who, don't be surprised, may well think his client is crazy too, but her money's still good), so that you can start to find out what is actually negotiable here.
posted by dhartung at 11:40 AM on September 2, 2014

AINAL I had a neighbor who 'did his own survey' and even put up markers. In my town and my previous town, it was quite easy to get the plans for the neighborhood, showing boundaries. It clearly showed the property lines where I knew they were supposed to be. Neighbor was itchin' for a fight, I drove him mental by acting like it was a joke Mike, you smoking crack again? The property line doesn't go that way, quit fooling around, hahaha. He moved, so it stopped being an issue.

So, check your property lines as shown in the deed/ city planning docs, boundary markers. Check the local regs on fences. She built a fence on the property line previously? Her fence might be on your property. That might put you in the position of having to maintain it.

Keep a log of neighbor's behavior. It's illegal to harass people. Having a lawyer write a demand letter based on fraudulent info (no actual survey) may be harassment.

If your neighbor tries to intervene, yells at you, whatever, whip out your cell phone, and video the interaction, telling your neighbor, My legal advisor has recommended that I not discuss this with you further. Please state your concerns in writing.

You may have to get a survey to respond to the neighbor if things continue; a drag, but dealing with annoying jerks is part of life, and and sometimes you're the unfortunate person who has to deal with it.
posted by theora55 at 12:04 PM on September 2, 2014

Get the survey. People really should get a survey when they buy new property every time anyway.

Most likely you will be in the clear no matter what, but it is possible that the boundary line is NOT where you or the inspector think it is. NEVER assume.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:19 PM on September 2, 2014

Response by poster: Update: the fence is repaired, and it looks great. Thanks for all the advice. I have decided to ignore my neighbor and her lawyer because it's true that it does not make sense to accommodate unreasonable people. It only encourages them.

My contractor thinks it's hilarious that she hired a lawyer. He confirmed that she also told him she had had a survey done - so why do we need another, if that is true? He also confirmed that it would take decades to deteriorate a chain-link fence to nothing but a few metal posts and a scrap of metal mesh, and by the principle of boundary by acquiescence, the fence line (not the fence itself) only has to exist for 20 years by mutual agreement to establish it as a boundary.

I am going to let her decide whether she wants to waste time and money on this trivial issue. I like my chances of winning if she does bring suit.
posted by caryatid at 1:24 PM on September 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

You never rely on someone else's survey. Surveyors can be wrong.

Btw in my state there are criteria for adverse possession. You may or may not meet them in yours. If she does go ahead just know there is a chance, even if unlikely, of this being an encroachment issue.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:33 PM on September 3, 2014

Response by poster: I am well aware that nothing is guaranteed. I will take my chances, thanks anyway.
posted by caryatid at 9:00 PM on September 3, 2014

Response by poster: Updating: Fence is still standing. Neighbor is still holding fire, and better yet, avoiding me. I'm marking this resolved.
posted by caryatid at 12:18 PM on January 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

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