How do I tell neighbors nicely that they can't cut through my property?
May 19, 2020 4:23 AM   Subscribe

In the "before times", a neighbor (who I don't know well) asked me if she could occasionally cut through my property to get access to a conservation trail when walking her dog. I need some help trying to phrase the fact that my family has become increasingly uncomfortable with this and we're not OK with the arrangement anymore. As always, relevant details inside...

Some relevant background:
  • The shortcut through our property is a *major* shortcut to the conservation trail, as in it saves about a 20 minute walk for anyone using it.
  • The shortcut itself goes right through our yard, on a scale of 1-10 of invasiveness, it's probably a 7? They're on our property for a good 5 minutes and have to walk about 10 feet from our porch and up our long driveway.
  • Pre-covid, we said yes because it was just one person (almost always with her dog), and almost never saw her. But now in covid times it's much more frequent and apparently she told some other neighbors because now they have started using it too (also with their dog).
It's this last part that's the most concerning, we do not want to this to become a well-traveled path and at the same time, do not want to come off as dick neighbors. Is there any phrasing I can use that might mitigate the harshness of saying "We're not OK with people using our property as a shortcut anymore, sorry."
posted by jeremias to Home & Garden (29 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Well, the virus could be a polite phrasing. Print, yes print that makes it official, a short sign, "Due to Covid this route is closed, please do not trespass". Perhaps mention to that neighbor that too many folks started using the path.
posted by sammyo at 4:39 AM on May 19, 2020 [43 favorites]

You could tell this specific neighbour that sadly a whole bunch of people started using the path, so now you regretfully have to close it off to everyone - what a shame, it was fine when it was just her, but seeing her using it is obviously giving everyone else the idea that it's a right of way.

As far as everyone else is concerned, surely a "private property, no access to trail" sign would suffice, why do they think it's fine to come marching up your drive in the first place?
posted by quacks like a duck at 4:53 AM on May 19, 2020 [55 favorites]

Check your deed to make sure there's not a right-of-way already established. If there's not then talk with a local real estate attorney about your options. If there's a well-trod path already in existence you may have issues with closing it.

That will dictate what you should or shouldn't do going forward.

Be very careful here, real estate and access laws are tricky.
posted by wkearney99 at 4:53 AM on May 19, 2020 [4 favorites]

And prepare your budget for the notion of "good fences make good neighbors".
posted by wkearney99 at 4:55 AM on May 19, 2020 [16 favorites]

Response by poster: Check your deed to make sure there's not a right-of-way already established. If there's not then talk with a local real estate attorney about your options. If there's a well-trod path already in existence you may have issues with closing it.

There is no right-of-way in the deed, and the path has not been well used by anyone except us (and very occasionally the one neighbor mentioned above).

This is part of my concern: the trail that borders our property has become extremely popular over the last few months and with three more people now using our access frequently, it's starting to appear more like a right-of-way.
posted by jeremias at 5:10 AM on May 19, 2020 [12 favorites]

Put up a fence
posted by oceanjesse at 5:13 AM on May 19, 2020 [12 favorites]

I'd suggest telling the neighbor that random people with less neighborly dogs have figured out her shortcut, so you need to close the path for a while. Agreed that a fence is probably the long-term solution.
posted by mersen at 5:29 AM on May 19, 2020 [27 favorites]

A sign is a good idea. I would also put up a simple rope fence across the driveway (just a piece of rope between two stakes placed on each side of the driveway), at some natural place near where people would need to enter your property. Hang the sign on it.
posted by ewok_academy at 5:30 AM on May 19, 2020 [12 favorites]

Sign now, fence soon. Your sign should include terms like "Private Property" "No Access" and "Trespassers will be reported to authorities."

And it doesn't make you a dick to say exactly this: "We're not OK with people using our property as a shortcut anymore, sorry." It's matter-of-fact and clearly sets your personal boundaries.
posted by gnutron at 5:49 AM on May 19, 2020 [17 favorites]

Put that sign up today. Then a laminated sign and a rope-type fence. Because if you allow people to use that shortcut for a certain amount of time (usually a year, depending on jurisdiction) it becomes right of way and you might even lose the right to put up a fence altogether.
posted by Neekee at 5:58 AM on May 19, 2020 [21 favorites]

Even a tacky cone and plastic tape fence, ugly as it is, could help protect your property rights.
posted by Neekee at 6:00 AM on May 19, 2020 [4 favorites]

Please, please talk to the neighbor before you put up a sign, and don't use the "reported to authorities" phrasing. These are your _neighbors_. They are lovely people, mostly, and if you treat them well they are some of the most valuable assets in the world. If you are rude to them you will probably regret it.

It's hard to know what to say! That's absolutely true. But you're here asking for help with that, so good for you.

If the surface truth sounds odd or trivial, it usually helps to look to a deeper or broader truth.

You're right, 20 minutes is a lot of time to add. For walking the dog, you'll essentially be saying that they won't be able to use the conservation trail most days.

Consider alternatives -- partly so that you can tell your neighbor that you've considered alternatives. Could you delineate a less intrusive trail through your property that certain people could use? Could you block off access, but include a gate that people with a key, that you provide, could use, and maybe ask that they pay an annual fee to help defray landscaping costs -- and maybe even make an adorable little path that would be pleasing to the eye?

Is there another attractive walking area nearby that you could direct them to?

I realize that the above ideas are unlikely to work; but if you can show your neighbor that you thought deeply and caringly about the problem, and maybe even include some kind of gift (a small book of local trails?), it will help them see that you aren't heartless.


You probably will need a sign and / or barrier, but for goodness sake, be kind and empathetic in the wording (and also firm, of course). Use direct wording in large letters, but also include another explanation in smaller type to communicate that your family really needs ... the thing they need.


One other thought: If they can't go through your yard, are they going to end up using the street in front of your place as the "dog walk" with the attendant mess?
posted by amtho at 6:47 AM on May 19, 2020 [22 favorites]

Also put up a sign, etc., where the route exits your property onto the trail.
posted by jointhedance at 7:06 AM on May 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

I like sammyo's phrasing as it's both true and appeals to a sense of public good. If I saw a sign that said "path closed due to covid" I would say ok and move on. A sign saying "do not trespass" is more likely to select for the jerks who believe that any attempt to restrict their movement is a violation of their constitutional rights, or the idiot teens who take signage like that as a challenge.
posted by basalganglia at 7:18 AM on May 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: >Please, please talk to the neighbor before you put up a sign, and don't use the "reported to authorities" phrasing. These are your _neighbors_. They are lovely people, mostly, and if you treat them well they are some of the most valuable assets in the world. If you are rude to them you will probably regret it.

Yep, your comment got to the heart of my concerns. Our family is generally very liberal/lenient about this sort of neighborly interaction, so that's kind of the "deeper truth" here. We're essentially fine about the principle of sharing our property, but unfortunately there is this Covid-related ripple effect that we have to deal with.

There's the specific Covid threat itself (my wife is immune compromised, a detail I intentionally left out earlier to keep things simple), but there's also this legal and liability issue that I can't avoid. There's the right-of-way issue mentioned above, but there's also the increasing odds of potential injury if traffic increases: the path is 1/4 mile long and because it abuts conservation land, our town bylaws prevent us from "upgrading" it whatsoever (wood chips, boardwalk, etc,). It can get kind of tricky to navigate during mud season and winter, it's ripe territory for a sprained or broken ankle.

All of the comments have really helped here, I am planning to chat with my neighbor and tell them the path is closed for the foreseeable future due to the volume of people, but we'll revisit it in the Fall. I'll also put up an explicit but gently worded sign to protect ourselves legally.
posted by jeremias at 8:16 AM on May 19, 2020 [25 favorites]

my wife is immune compromised, a detail I intentionally left out earlier to keep things simple

Oh, that's your reason right there. "Hi neighbor - so, about that path; you know, we're trying to play things extra-careful with the virus since [wife] is in a high-risk group, so we're really forced to limit the number of people with access to our yard specifically. And since some other people have started using it too, we need to block it off; can you do us a favor and also stay away for now, to emphasize that it's closed? Thanks. Man, this all sucks, doesn't it? Hopefully we can revisit opening it up again soon."

You can also tell a white lie and say that this is something her doctor said you should do.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:21 AM on May 19, 2020 [12 favorites]

I like the blaming the doctor idea (or blaming “my friend who’s a lawyer” or whatever other helpful character). But I also think it’s reasonable to say “You always used the shortcut in a non-invasive way, but now that so many other neighbors know about it we feel unneighborly if only one of you guys gets to use the shortcut, and we just can’t handle multiple people using it. I’m so sorry but it won’t work out anymore.”

If you get “But XYZ,” just repeat the Miss Manners “I’m sorry, it just won’t be possible any more.”
posted by sallybrown at 8:51 AM on May 19, 2020 [13 favorites]

One other thought- vis-a-vis the possibility of accidentally creating a public right of way. Once you put the sign up, snap a photo of it and e-mail it to yourself to create time stamped documentation of its existence.
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 8:51 AM on May 19, 2020 [15 favorites]

Say to neighbor: Our yard has become a frequently-used thorofare. For a number of reasons, this has become a problem for us, so we're going to post our property and we won't be allowing anyone access from now on. Thank you for understanding.

Post No Trespassing signs. They're ugly. Leave them up for a while. Check your state regulations to see if this applies and Post a sign saying A purple blaze is a legal indicator that No Tresspassing is allowed. We appreciate your cooperation. Then paint tidy purple blazes on trees, and paint the No Tresspassing signs purple and post them. Purple blaze is a regulation in Maine, less ugly than other signs. In some cases, lack of signage makes a property accessible. You might want to check your state's website and talk to a lawyer.

If you allow people to use your property, over time, it may become a legal public path. IANAL, but you might want to check on this. It could affect your property value. I'm a fan of more open countryside, but 10' from your porch? Nah. If there is another shortcut, find it, publicize it. You might want to post to any social media like NextDoor what you are doing and why, but not in a way that informs anyone else Hey, shortcut! Your neighbor didn't mean to be a dick, but is about to experience natural and logical consequences of blabbing. You are behaving reasonably; don't be bullied.
posted by theora55 at 9:35 AM on May 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

I feel like this may be something you won't want to 'open back up' after COVID. So I'd be a little more cautious in your wording to not make people think that the shortcut will be open after this is over. It sounds like you're still somewhat ok with just your one neighbor cutting through, but not the others.
posted by hydra77 at 10:46 AM on May 19, 2020 [5 favorites]

If my land were big enough, I would make a shared trail that saved my neighbors time but DIDN'T cut within sight of my house. Then I would still set up a fence with a gate and no trespassing signs (to protect from establishment of a public-right-of-way that might be protected legally in the future), and just make quiet agreements with specific neighbors that they can go through the gate. Maybe even put a padlock with a combination lock on it. Also, tell her to stop telling other people about it or telling them that it's ok.

I totally understand if you just want it to stop, though.
posted by amaire at 10:47 AM on May 19, 2020

I'm in a similar, but not identical situation because of the coronavirus.

The access road to my house, which I own, is very popular for walks, it connects via a smaller path to a whole network of country roads. If you continue on the road right past my house, you can enter a large national park, right where one of their trails start. My neighbors use this a lot, and I don't mind at all. But with a lot of people isolating in vacation cottages, I'm increasingly getting into fights with people about my dog. I see it as my right, and a big quality of life thing that I can walk my dog without a leash on the road and in a little wood I have near its beginning at the public road. He never strays, and he isn't in any way dangerous, but he is big. People scream at me, claim that I can't have a dog off leash even on my own land, etc. I'm worried for when someone gets legalistic about it, because even though I have the right, I don't have the money for a civil suit.
Obviously, someone screaming in your face, whatever their excuse, is a potential virus-spreader.
At this point in time, I don't worry too much about the people who walk into the part of the road which is in my garden. Even though my dog is a gentle beast, he has strong feelings about the garden and he expresses himself freely. Although these corona-refugees are an angry crowd, and I'm worried about litigation, it seems generally accepted that dogs are allowed to guard houses.
Sorry about the long story, it is just to show what is similar and what isn't. What I have decided is to put up simple signs at the main gates. My gates are always open, for several reasons which I won't elaborate on because this is already too long. We live quite far apart, and I don't have the phone numbers for all the relevant neighbors, but I've begun to tell them when I see them that the signs are going up and that they can ignore them, but random people who spend three weeks a year or COVID isolation in a cottage can't. None of the neighbors have the same problem, so they don't think of it. My hope is that they will help me by warning people to keep off the land.
My signs will simply say: PRIVATE ROAD - DOG LOOSE. This is very similar to the sign my grandparents had and they kept the dog part up for years after their last dog passed away. Just saying...
posted by mumimor at 11:17 AM on May 19, 2020 [5 favorites]

5 minutes on your property and passes close to your house? Man, your lot must be a really crazy shape. I agree a fence with an apartment type code gate is probably the best most neighborly thing you could do. But fencing that much property would probably be super expensive.

So signs and some steel posts might be good enough.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:25 PM on May 19, 2020

I wouldn't volunteer any family health details, but highlight the loss of privacy and looming legal issues if pressed. And yes, it's that others must've witnessed your neighbor using your private property as a shortcut, not that she spread the word. You're letting her know that permission is withdrawn, clear private-property signs are going to be posted, and maybe you're looking into your fencing options going forward, despite the expense.
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:28 PM on May 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

Honestly maybe I'm cynical but I would be careful even in verbal speech and especially in writing about any kind of naming this as a path, shortcut, or "access to" anything. Saying you're blocking access implies that there is any expectation of access. It's not unkind to be clear that you are not "denying access", you are keeping your property private.
posted by nakedmolerats at 12:29 PM on May 19, 2020 [14 favorites]

Man, your lot must be a really crazy shape

I don't know anything about the OP's situation, but this is something that interests me a lot.
Back in the olden times, people wanted to connect, not isolate. In our area, the road system was completely different from what it is now, and my private roads were main thoroughfares. They were private then too, but it was seen as an advantage to be on the main local roads. Our farm was a central location in the community, with mills and good connections to the traders in town. That's cool! And as I posted above, it's still cool when neighbors pass by.
What isn't cool is when suddenly hundreds of people pass through, littering and feeling they have a right of way which they don't. Now I have an expensive surveillance system, but I have had everything in my house stolen once I was away.
posted by mumimor at 2:21 PM on May 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: We do have a very interesting lot, we're an outlier for what is primarily a suburban neighborhood 20 miles outside of Boston. We basically have a 4 acre plot that looks like it was picked up out of Vermont by a giant and dropped into suburbia, which, ironically, is one of the reasons we bought it!

So thanks for all the feedback everyone. Again, it was useful for me to walk through the scenario in my mind, and there is a positive outcome to share. As fate would have it, neighbor #1 happened to be walking past a few hours ago, before I had a chance to put up any sign.

We chatted for a few minutes and I basically said I was asking people not to access my property "for now" because of the increased traffic and that it was becoming unsafe. I didn't need to explicitly pull the covid card or bring up the fact that she, ehrm, may have had something to do with the new pedestrians. I did ask her if she happened to know of anyone who used it, could she pass the info along? She was cool with that and understanding of my reasoning, and even made a joke about how it would help with her step count, etc. No questions about if or when I would be opening it up again, so I didn't have to cross that hurdle.

After she left, I put up two gently worded hand-crafted signs on the opposite ends of the path for anyone who might encounter them (basically saying this was private property and "reminding" them to respect the fact that access was not allowed without permission), and then I bought two harsher official looking "Posted - No Trespassing" signs and will put them further into the path for anyone who decides to to ignore or overlook the first ones.
posted by jeremias at 3:30 PM on May 19, 2020 [32 favorites]

As a fellow 20-miles-from-Boston rural suburb dweller, thanks for being kind to the neighbors even as you limit their access. Our town currently has big issues with landowners restricting historical right of ways and even my own neighbors have attempted to bar the way across a town owned easement that borders our properties. I’ve had to remove deliberately placed brush piles more than once.

I let the neighbors use our 1/4 mile driveway to get to the easement, but they don’t come close to our house. I understand how it would start to feel intrusive. I think getting to know your neighbors, as hard as that is in a pandemic, is probably the best way to have your wishes respected without having to involve the authorities or without anyone getting prickly or hostile. A friendly word always goes over better than a no trespassing sign.
posted by lydhre at 6:39 PM on May 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'll again re-iterate the suggestion of seeking local legal advice.

Good intentions and being neighborly are important. But they don't outweigh the need to be vigilant with regard to your property rights.

A quick search brings up this:

Signage is a good first step, but may not be the only step necessary.
posted by wkearney99 at 1:56 PM on May 21, 2020

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