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Noxious Neighbours

Disputes between neighbours are so common that Canadian lawyers’ associations put on continuing education programs every year with titles like “Noxious Neighbours” or “Nightmare Neighbours.”  Assuming that simply speaking with your neighbour about a problem you face has not worked, consider calling Municipal Bylaw Enforcement, particularly if the problem with your neighbour concerns noise, smells, animals or garbage.  Many bylaws regulate these problems.  If that has not worked, you may have a couple of options including, suing your neighbour for nuisance or simply using a little “self-help.”

The three most common sources of disputes between neighbours are trees and their branches or roots, fences (where to put them) and the sharing of driveways.  If you share a driveway and each of you has a right-of-way over the other person’s half, there’s not much either of you can do to force cooperation.  One person cannot force the other to do repairs or to even shovel snow.  Of course, it’s impossible to force people to be considerate, and you’re going to be stuck with a battle if you have an uncooperative neighbour and a shared driveway.

It can be a little better with trees and fences.  In the case of trees that hang over a property, especially if they cause damage, a mess or shade, or if they have roots coming out of the ground ruining a foundation or patio, the homeowner experiencing the problem can take steps to fix or improve the situation.  Branches?  Cut them off at the property line.  Roots?  Cut or dig them out on your side.  But in both cases, do only as much as is needed to solve your particular problem.  Do not go overboard and, for example, kill the entire tree if that is not necessary.  If the trees are on your neighbour’s property and they have caused damage, then your neighbour may be responsible to you to pay for or fix the damage caused. 

It is important when dealing with problems concerning trees to check with local bylaw enforcement officers first because many municipalities have now instituted restrictions on the cutting of trees.  They may be part of a protected “urban forest.” It is one thing to cut a few branches; it is another to cut down the tree.  Even if a tree is completely on your own property, you may not be able to cut it down without a permit if it is over a certain size.  And by the way, you might want to make sure that the tree you’re trying to cut down isn’t owned by the municipality.

Fences are supposed to make good neighbours—but that seems to be only after they have been erected.  Deciding where a fence should go and who should pay for it can be painful for neighbours who do not know how to cooperate.  The need for a fence may be more than simply decorative.  If a pool is involved, local bylaws will require the erection of a fence.  Sometimes it is to keep a pet from wandering, and in some cases, the fence is simply for our all-important privacy. 

If you face this kind of problem involving a fence, step one is to make sure you have the property line identified accurately.  This will mean checking an existing survey, or maybe even having a survey done.  Once the survey is completed, stake the property line so that it is clearly identifiable.  For the erection of the fence, the property line is generally the fenceline. 

Who pays?  Typically, neighbours should share the cost of the fence, regardless of whose idea it was to erect it.  If you cannot agree on the location and the cost sharing, then call your local municipality and they will, in all likelihood, have someone come out to your property and settle both issues.  If push comes to shove, you can even sue your neighbour to contribute to the cost of erecting the fence.

Bottom line: there are times in disputes between neighbours when it is simply not possible to grin and bear it, and it is necessary to involve the municipal bylaw enforcement officers, sue the neighbour, involve the police (see the section on criminal harassment in Chapter 3) and even employ a little self-help.  Your own personal safety is always the number one concern, but before you consider moving to avoid your noxious neighbour, look at the help that’s available.