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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Love Thy Neighbor? You Must Be Kidding

The New Testament tells us that Jesus instructed his followers to "love thy neighbor." (Matthew 22: 36-40).

If Jesus walked among us today, and had to rub shoulders with the numerous thoughtless jerk-offs that populate our planet, I suspect he would revise that to, "Try not to strangle thy neighbor."

These thoughts come to mind after reading about Edna Jester, the 89-year-old woman in Blue Ash, Ohio, who was arrested recently after refusing to return a neighbor kid's football that had flown into her yard. Jester had repeatedly asked the kids and their parents to keep their stuff off her property. When those requests fell on deaf ears, she took matters, and the football, into her own hands.

Sanity finally prevailed, and law-enforcement officials dropped petty theft charges against Jester.

We noted in a previous post that Jester's experience is remarkably similar to what Mrs. Schnauzer and I have experienced with our troublesome neighbor. One difference? I see no evidence that the clueless parent in the Jester case has a criminal history, while our hero (Mike McGarity) has at least eight criminal convictions in his background.

(Question: How does a guy with a criminal record like McGarity's get a job at a reputable employer like Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, which supposedly does extensive background checks because it is a federal Medicare contractor? McGarity has worked at BC/BS of Alabama for 20-plus years, and you have to wonder, "How could that be?" Did he fill out the company's application truthfully where it asks about criminal history? Did BC/BS not bother to check his background? We will be examining these issues down the road.)

A little research reveals that Jester, Mrs. Schnauzer, and I are hardly alone in wrestling with crappy neighbors. The Web is filled with sites like rottenneighbor.com, mybadneighbors.com, neighborsfromhell.com, and theneighborsfromhell.com. Even CNNmoney.com has tackled the subject.

Having been on the front line of the neighbor wars, I have some hard-earned perspective on the problem. I've read that dogs, children, and fences are the three most common neighbor problems--and we've had all three with McGarity. But I would add thoughtless adults to the top of that list.

In my experience, dogs, children, and fences usually become problems only when a thoughtless adult is in the picture.

The Jester and Schnauzer stories both deal prominently with children and clueless parents, so let's focus on that issue. My theory is that most child-related problems in neighborhoods can be easily solved--if the parents involved are remotely well intentioned.

Jerk-off parents, I'm afraid, will always be with us. But for cases where the parents do have some comprehension that those who live around them do indeed have property rights, here are a few ideas for addressing these problems:

* Know the Law--I think most adults understand that we have this concept called "private property" in the United States. It's one of the ideas that separates us from Communist societies. For those who don't grasp the law, plenty of resources are available, including the book Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries, and Noise. The basic idea is this: The people who live around you have virtually an absolute right to the quiet enjoyment of their property. If you intentionally engage in an activity that causes an object to enter their property, including the air space above their property (for a reasonable distance) and the ground below it, you have committed a civil trespass and can be sued for it. If you physically enter someone's property without being licensed, privileged, or invited, you have committed a criminal trespass--and you can be arrested and prosecuted. The neighbor does not have to warn you to stay off his property. It is the would-be trespasser's duty to make sure he is licensed, privileged, or invited. Whether someone is invited onto property is fairly clear cut. But what about "license" and "privilege?" License generally refers to people who, because of their professional or public duties, have a right to enter property. A meter reader or law-enforcement officer are two examples. Privilege generally refers to situations involving accidents or emergencies. For example, if you are walking down the street, and the wind blows the hat off your head and onto my yard, you can lawfully retrieve it. (If you intentionally throw your hat and it winds up on my property, you cannot lawfully retrieve it without getting my permission. Of course, if you don't do this all the time, I'm probably not going to mind you coming to get your hat.) If you see a workman on my yard who suddenly appears to be having a heart attack or other health problem, you can lawfully enter my property in an effort to assist.

* Think Before You Buy--Here's a thought for you parents with sports-minded kids: If it's really important that your child have a large, clear, flat area to play in, look for that when you buy a house. The parents in the Jester case have five kids, but they apparently bought a house with a small yard, in a neighborhood where houses are close together. If they needed more space, they should have thought of that before buying the house. In our case, many of the houses in our neighborhood have wooded backyards, which real-estate agents seem to use as a selling point. But it makes the backyards bad for games that involve throwing or kicking balls. (The backyards are great for all sorts of other games.) I assume that's why McGarity insisted that he and various kids play in their front yard, even if it meant running into the street and possibly into the path of cars. Of course, they had every right to play in their front yard, but there was no way to keep stuff from coming onto our front yard. Under covenants and restrictions in our neighborhood, I couldn't fence the front yard to keep them out--and like a lot of folks, we didn't want a fence around our front yard anyway. Again, if the property didn't fit McGarity's needs, he should have bought another piece of property. His solution was to trample our property rights.

* Use Nearby Parks and Schoolyards--I was a kid once, and I loved to play ball, and I wholeheartedly endorse kids today playing games and being physically active. Before McGarity moved in, my wife and I allowed the kids who lived on the other side of us at the time to routinely come on our yard to retrieve balls. In fact, they probably spent more time in our yard than they did in their own. But their parents had asked for permission, and we said yes. Also, their parents had built a cordial relationship with us, something McGarity never did. Everything was fine with those neighbors until we came home one day and found one of the boys tormenting our dog, Murphy, while she was inside her own house. He intentionally kicked and threw a ball off the window, trying to harass her. The kids apologized for it, and we allowed them back on our yard. But they still seemed to resent having been caught causing trouble on our yard, and we eventually witnessed the older one again misbehaving on our property. When we confronted the parents about it, the child clearly had lied about what had taken place--the mother told me he much later admitted to what he had done. But at the time, the mother said she was "going to believe my son." So we made our yard off limits to those kids and vowed we never again would allow kids to come and go as they pleased on our property. That was our state of mind when McGarity moved in and caused all hell to break loose. But back to my experience as a kid. Until I was in the fifth grade, we lived in a two-bedroom house with a very small yard. If it was just me or maybe one friend, we could play in the backyard without intruding on the neighbors. But if it was a bunch of us playing a full-fledged game, we walked to the school yard that was about three blocks away. I feel certain the neighbors never considered me or my friends to be nuisances. We later moved to a house with about an acre lot, so I was fortunate to have plenty of room to play. But again, my parents knew they had four kids and thought of the need for room beforehand. If getting a larger lot isn't possible, most areas have schoolyards or parks nearby. In our situation, we have four public schools and two huge public parks within about three miles of our neighborhood. McGarity and other parents could have easily packed a bunch of kids into one or two SUVs, and taken them to areas with plenty of room to play. But that would have involved a little effort on their part. And I guess they found it easier to take over our yard.

* Volume Matters--As a matter of law, you don't have to put up with anybody or anything coming on your property uninvited--with the rare exceptions noted above. But as a practical matter, I don't think most people mind the occasional ball or whatever coming on their property, and a kid or parent coming to get it. But volume matters. A steady parade of people and stuff on your private property can get old in a hurry. And it also says someone isn't even making an effort to respect your property rights. I suspect that's why Edna Jester's patience wore thin. And I know that's what happened in our case.

* Financial Peril--Some folks might read about Edna Jester, or we Schnauzers, and label us crabby "Mr. Wilson" types. Well, folks who allow others to come and go as they please on their property are taking a major risk financially. Consider our situation: If one of the kids or parents who routinely came on our property had gotten hurt, we could have been sued and held responsible for their injuries. You might say, "Hey, your homeowner's insurance would cover it; no big deal." But you might think again. In our case, people were constantly running on and over our concrete driveway. Imagine a kid falling on our driveway and suffering a traumatic head injury. Our insurance premiums would skyrocket, and we might even be dropped as an insured.

I'll close this little discussion with some Schnauzer theology. After hearing about our situation, someone once told me, "Roger, you're supposed to love your neighbor."

Well, let's consider that for a moment. This person seemed to be saying that my wife and I should just let Mike McGarity abuse our property rights. This person, like a lot of folks, forgot the full extent of Jesus' instruction. The full quote is, "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

In other words, any meaningful or loving relationship starts with self love and self respect. And you don't show self love by allowing someone else to walk all over you.

I would submit that "love thy neighbor" joins "forgiveness" and "turn the other cheek" as three of the most misinterpreted ideas in the Bible. (We'll save those other two subjects for another sermon.)

The bottom line? Standing up for your property rights is the smart, lawful, and Christian thing to do. And I'm grateful to Edna Jester for helping to bring attention to that truth--even though I'm sure she would have rather not been put in that position.

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