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Walling In and Walling Out


Havre de Grace -- About 15 years ago, when one of our neighbors gave up farming and sold out, the new buyer didn't want the 40-acre piece that backs up to our place. So, with some misgivings, I bought it myself.

It's a rough, steep piece of ground, too hilly to plow and precarious even to mow. But it's well watered, with a good spring at one end and a steady little stream cutting across it at the other, and there's plenty of shade, so I figured it would make good summer pasture if I did some work on the fences.

These were ancient, consisting mostly of rusty wire, rotten posts and multiflora rose bushes, but the cows stayed in pretty well, as what they had inside the pasture was on the whole better than anything they could see outside it.

There's a house on a two-acre lot on the back side of the 40 acres, but the old fence didn't pay any attention to the boundary. The house and one acre was on one side, and the other acre was on my side of the fence. The householder didn't care, though. He didn't mind looking at the cows, and if we'd moved the fence he would simply have had more grass to mow.

Then the house was sold, and the new householder, quite reasonably, said he'd like to have access to his full two acres. So I suggested that, in accordance with both rural custom and established law, we divide the cost of building a new boundary-line fence equally.

He was startled by that proposal. After all, I had cows, and he didn't. If it weren't for my cows, we wouldn't need the fence at all. Why didn't I build the fence myself, he wanted to know.

Out on the exurban fringe, where farms are increasingly bordered by non-farm property, this is just how some nasty disputes get started. They can be complex as well as bitter, with cultural dimensions as well as economic ones, and they frequently end up polarizing neighborhoods.

The September issue of National Cattlemen has a chilling account of such a case in Virginia, decided by the state supreme court last spring. In that case, when a lawyer bought a big farm in Bowling Green, he put a new high-tensile fence all the way around it and billed his neighbors for half the cost. Those who didn't pay, he sued.

He was entirely within his legal rights, the court concluded, for a 1970 Virginia law specifically gave livestock owners the power to build such property-line fences and demand half the cost. The intent of the law was to protect farming operations in urbanizing areas.

But two of the seven judges who heard the case dissented, noting that the property owners who were billed were deprived of due process. They were given no hearing at which they could question the need for a fence, or challenge the proposed cost of building it. It strikes me the dissenters make a fairly good case.

In any lengthy dispute about fencing, someone is sure to cite Robert Frost, and declare that "Good fences make good neighbors." But that notion, as expressed in the 1914 poem "Mending Wall," wasn't necessarily Frost's.

In the poem, the wall is mended by the speaker and his neighbor. It's the speaker who sees the exercise as:

. . . just another kind of outdoor game,

One on a side. It comes to little more:

There where it is we do not need thewall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

and eat the cones under his pines, Itell him.

He only says, "Good fences make goodneighbors."

Obviously, good fences can make pretty bad neighborhood relations, too, as the Virginia cattleman-lawyer proved. Frost knew that. His wall-mending speaker wants to ask why good fences are supposed to make good neighbors.

. . . Isn't it

Where there are cows? But here thereare no cows.

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offense.

It seems to me that when cultures and traditions collide, as happens all the time in American cities as well as in the American countryside, what's needed aren't laws or lawsuits, but reasonable behavior and a willingness to listen.

In my case, after some consultation with my new neighbor, I built a new high-tensile wire fence around the entire 40 acres. I supplied both the labor and the materials; the field needed a new fence, and I had been thinking about building one anyway.

I also bought a new charger to electrify the fence when I have cattle in the field. The charger hangs in my neighbor's toolshed, out of the rain, and is plugged into a 110-volt socket there. He pays for the electricity it uses, and lets me know if it malfunctions, as it sometimes does if lightning hits the fence. It's a compromise, and it's worked out to our mutual satisfaction for quite a few years now.

I doubt very much that good fences do make good neighbors. But good neighbors ought to be able to work out fencing 'D problems without having to square off in court.

Peter A. Jay's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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