"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
August 13, 2015
My Neighbors Are a Little Too Nice
by Cyndie Swindlehurst

Question:

We moved to the country and bought a place with some land because we didn't want to have neighbors close by. We wanted freedom and privacy.

Our next-door neighbors live a quarter-mile away. They are the sweetest retired couple, but they are a little too nice. Today, the husband is mowing my lawn because he says it breeds mosquitos. Yesterday, he brought over something to throw in the swampy part of my property to kill mosquitos. He always has advice on how to eliminate the weeds in my flowerbeds.

These neighbors give our dog treats, so whenever our dog sees an open door, it runs out and over to their house. The other night I got home at midnight and couldn't find our dog. It was raining and I searched everywhere.

I finally gave up and left the garage door open, hoping it would come home. I got up at 6:30 a.m. and went out looking again. Our neighbors brought the dog home at 8 a.m. -- it had spent the night at their house.

Right now I am sitting on the floor of my bedroom because I don't want him to see me playing on my computer as he mows my lawn. I'd like to take my kids swimming, but I don't feel like I can leave with him here mowing.

I'm glad they are kind, but I'm feeling claustrophobic.

Answer:

Property rights, you may have heard, are like a bundle of sticks. Each stick represents a right of ownership. There is the right to exclude others, the right to occupy the property, the right to sell and the general right to do what you want as long as you comply with easements and covenants, local land use restrictions, and the like.

From a property rights perspective, you could tell your neighbors to go fly a kite. It's your land and unless there are restrictions on your deed, you can have all the shaggy grass, weedy flowerbeds and mosquitos you want. If they have a problem with it, they can file a nuisance suit.

This column, however, will not tell you how to assert your property rights against your neighbors because this is an advice column. And telling your neighbors to go jump in the lake, just because you can, is a bad idea. It is neither kind nor neighborly.

Now, I don't think you wanted to tell them to buzz off, but it is nevertheless good to remember that in a pleasant and sociable world, some property rights must remain unasserted for the sake of neighborliness.

A good neighbor is a wonderful thing. Someone friendly and pleasant, with whom you exchange Christmas and Hanukkah treats, who minds his own business but will lend you a ladder if you need one. Someone whose yard looks neat, whose house is well-maintained, and whose mailbox is both painted and firmly affixed to the post.

A good neighbor, somewhat paradoxically, minds his own business, but also notices when something is wrong and pitches in if someone needs help. Good neighbors talk to each other about community concerns, and when there is a problem or dispute, they assume a misunderstanding instead of malevolence. Good neighbors often become good friends.

Even if you don't develop actual friendships with your neighbors, you can still be neighborly: You can behave in a way that does not disturb others and you can maintain a home and yard that make your neighborhood attractive.

At the very least, your home should meet community standards. That includes controlling the pests and weeds on your property that can and will spread to your neighbors' land.

Whether you live in an apartment, townhome, suburb or the country, the way you use and maintain your property affects adjacent landowners. You have more leeway in the country than in a densely populated area. But even in the country you have neighbors, and those neighbors have legitimate expectations for how you behave and maintain your property.

In your case, it appears that you want your neighbors to behave better -- you want them to mind their own business. And I bet they want you to maintain your property better.

Interestingly, it seems like both of you are right. It is indeed intrusive to look out your window and see someone, unbidden, mowing your lawn. But it is also unpleasant to drive down the road and see an unkempt lawn and weed-ridden flowerbeds.

I would not like someone to give my pet treats without my permission. However, I would even more strongly dislike someone's pet running around my property in the middle of the night. (Not having a pet myself, I cannot say whether a well-trained pet would remain in the house and yard on its own, despite its awareness of treats at the neighbors'.)

I do not think it was overstepping when your neighbor brought you the anti-mosquito treatment. It was a neighborly way to say, "You have to do something about that swamp or we are going to have an infestation." He seems to know something you don't about the local insects. You should listen to him.

So what are you going to do now? You want your neighbors to back off, but you also want to show appreciation for their kindness. How might you accomplish this? Here are four ideas.

One, ask him to teach you. The next time he comes over, go outside and talk to him. Say something like, "Henry, you are the best neighbor. I appreciate how you help us out all the time. But I'm sure you have your own things do. It's just not right that you are here doing our work and not home doing yours."

He may protest. You will say, "No, I insist. I want you to show me what to do. I've got my paper and pencil right here so I can make notes about what needs to be done."

Then, as you walk and talk, you can either agree with his suggestions ("I'll buy some Mosquito-B-Gone this weekend"), scale back his suggestions ("I'll just mow it shorter instead of more often") or reject his suggestions ("That's too ambitious for me"). You will probably get a sense of what is most important to him, which you could consider when making your weekly chore list.

Two, visit their home to talk about it. The next time he mows your lawn or they take in your dog, make a plate of cookies and go to their home. Thank them for their services and say that you really must pay them.

Explain that your dad taught you to always pay your own way, and that you feel desperately uncomfortable taking up their time without giving anything in return. Add that you don't mind a longer lawn -- you were taught that it suppresses weeds and conserves water. And ask them not to give your dog treats anymore because it rewards the dog for escaping.

Then, one of a few things may happen. They might apologize for intruding. You will say, "Oh, no, no, no. You are wonderful neighbors," etc. Or they might say they love to help because they have tons of time and energy or because your dog is fun. You can stick to your guns and say that even though you appreciate their help, you really would prefer to do the work yourself.

More interesting will be if they respond (nicely, of course) that the long lawn is a problem, that the weedy beds are embarrassing, that the swamp needs desperate attention, or that they give your dog treats to lure it close enough to catch when it barks at their kitchen window.

If that happens, remain calm. You came to discuss your problem, and it is only right to listen to any concerns they have in return. In fact, you should try to anticipate their concerns and how you might respond.

Three, mow your lawn before he does. Weed your flowerbeds. Control your swamp. And train your dog. Yes, this impinges on the way you want to live. It is more effort than you think is necessary. But if the work is already done, he won't come over to do it.

Four, own it and go swimming. If your lawn, flowerbeds, dog and swamp are adequately maintained to the community standard, and if your neighbor still insists on coming over, unasked, to do your yard work, you are under no obligation to hide in your house until he is done.

Instead, put on your swimsuit, pack your pool bag and head out to the car. Give him a cheery wave and a big smile, get into the car and drive away. If he really enjoys mowing your lawn, he won't mind a bit. But if he is trying to shame you into mowing your lawn to his specifications, your lack of shame may convince him to stop trying.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!


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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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