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The boors next door

The Baltimore Sun

This past summer, a Baltimore City condo owner was sound asleep when the racket outside his window jolted him awake.

Groggy but curious, he lifted the bedroom blinds only to spy his new neighbors out back, playing what he described as a noisy game of pick-up basketball - at midnight. Once he got up, the 50-something homeowner couldn't get back to sleep, and he had to get up early for work the next morning.

Neighborhood etiquette, a subjective term that covers a broad spectrum of community conduct, has stirred renewed attention of late, locally and nationwide. From a new neighborhood nuisance law in Baltimore City, to a popular new Web site about "rotten" neighbors that's getting millions of hits, people are talking about their neighbors.

Some tales from the home front aren't so pretty.

Rowdy neighbors, filthy neighbors. Folks who blare their music, fail to clean up after their pets, put trash out on wrong collection days, leave broken-down cars in their driveways or ugly contraptions in the backyard. Neighbors who rarely or never speak.

In one Columbia community, a dispute over a backyard pool led to a more than seven-year feud between two neighbors, including lawsuits, criminal complaints and a spitting incident.

"Many people buy a home because of location, some are concerned about crime, others don't want to live around people who play their radios too loud," says Deborah Ford, director of the bachelor of science program in real estate and economic development at the University of Baltimore. "Really, it's about your values, and what expectations are for different types of people."

Yet perceptions about communities and the residents who inhabit them, adds Ford, can be important, potentially affecting property values and more.

"There are strict laws about housing discrimination, so Realtors can't do or say anything that would deter someone from moving to a community," she says. But that doesn't mean residents already living there can't take action if they're fed up with their neighbors.

"If people get tired," says Ford, "some of them will decide, 'I'm moving out.'"

That's already happened in one southwest Baltimore neighborhood, according to Baltimore City Councilwoman Helen Holton, who represents the 8th District. She says a few families made the choice to "sell and move out" because of unbearable neighbors.

"We had one property in my district with the neighbors from hell," says Holton, who says the complaints included unfounded allegations of drug activity. "The owners moved out, brought in tenants, then basically took the attitude, 'What happens is not my problem.'"

And that house wasn't Holton's only concern. "Baltimore is a college town. Some kids are drinking, they have these kegger parties. ... There's loud music, and the next day they wind up sprawled on lawns."

To tackle some of these issues, Holton introduced legislation before the City Council in June; Mayor Sheila Dixon signed it into law in November.

The neighborhood nuisance law holds property owners responsible for tenants whose disorderly conduct, such as loud noise or profanity, affects their neighbors. Penalties for violations of the new law can include fines up to $500 or 90 days in jail.

"It's about how we protect quality of life," says Holton, adding that the law represents a partnership between city police and housing departments. "People pay a lot of property taxes, and they deserve a level of quality."

Enforcing covenants

Some communities try to maintain a level of quality through the use of restrictive covenants - a set of rules spelled out in one's mortgage that may address issues such as whether a homeowner can erect a fence or build a shed. Violations can result in action that includes foreclosure.

Torrey Jacobsen, president of the Greater Crofton Council Inc., a group of community associations in Anne Arundel County, views covenants as something of a mixed bag. But he believes they're helpful in maintaining both peace and property values.

"You don't want someone painting their house bright pink," says the businessman and married father of three, who purchased his home in Crofton Manor - where houses can sell in the half-million dollar range - some 17 years ago.

Saying "covenants work most of the time" to ward off problems, Jacobsen adds that, if disputes do arise, a court order can be used to enforce the document. But he prefers fostering neighborly relationships, so that such actions don't become necessary.

"I don't have problems with my neighbors," says Jacobsen, although he does admit the covenant has prevented him from parking his beloved camper out front. "It's not like a big RV, but I can't keep it on the property. I have to pay to store it in a garage. Oh well, everyone has rules."

Rating the neighbors

But the "rules" in neighborhoods without covenants tend to be open to interpretation. That can sometimes lead to conflict and resentment among neighbors.

Brant Walker, a 27-year-old Web designer who lives in San Diego, Calif., is privy to such gripes on a regular basis. In July 2007, Walker launched a Web site called rot tenneighbor.com, which allows users to rate and review their neighbors, using a five-star system, and add commentary.

Inspiration for the site came, he says, from a neighbor in his apartment building whose cooking hit an olfactory nerve.

"The worst smells would come over ... like something was rotten," says Walker. "I started thinking, 'What if a service existed that would help people find in advance what their neighbors were like?'"

Just six months later, the site is flourishing, according to Walker, with more than 100,000 postings and some 70 million hits.

Baltimore residents have posted on the site, as have neighbors from across the U.S. and around the world. "We heard from someone in Saudi Arabia," says Walker. "Apparently, bad neighbors aren't just an American thing."

The site also has drawn real estate professionals who debate its merits, says its creator.

"Some of them think it's great and tell their clients, because they can't disclose this information," he says. "Some homeowners think it's bad because it brings down the value of their homes."

Civility could help

Johns Hopkins University professor P.M. Forni, founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, has spent a decade investigating the role of good manners, civility and politeness in society.

"Neighborhoods used to be the building blocks of civil society," says Forni. "That was when neighbors knew one another and had face-to-face encounters with one another at the grocer's, at the barber and at the pharmacy soda-fountain counter. Neighbors opened their homes to neighbors, kept an eye on their neighbors' children and helped one another in case of need."

While some communities still do that, Forni says far too many do not - and this is nothing new.

"Feuds between neighboring clans span generations. Border-sharing nations war with one another," says Forni, who wrote the book Choosing Civility in 2002. "And I have always found it fascinating that the word 'rival' comes from a Latin word for 'neighbor.' "

Now writing a follow-up book called The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude, Forni believes the key to better neighborhood relations is as simple as greeting fellow community members and extending kindness and mutual respect.

In the Patterson Park community, Lissa Potter, who recently relocated from Detroit, shared a true tale of neighborhood kindness involving a lost dog. Potter stumbled upon the pooch recently, while walking her own dog, Conan, in the park.

"The dog was affectionate and came right to me, so I knew it probably belonged to someone," says Potter, who took the animal to her rowhouse and prepared to search for its rightful owners. After a notice was posted on the neighborhood's online message board and signs were put up, Coco was returned within days to the distraught owners.

"The entire neighborhood really should get the credit for this one. I didn't see the owner's fliers, the owner didn't see mine," says Potter, adding that neighbors eventually passed the owners' number onto her.

"Coco is home because a lot of folks were looking out," she says. "This is why, when I got a job in Baltimore, I moved to the city. We care and we look out for each other."

NEIGHBORLY TIPS

Pets

-- When walking your dog (or other pets), make sure that your pooch does not stray onto your neighbor's lawn. Clean up after your pet when walking.

Noise

-- Unwanted and unnecessary noise is a form of pollution. Do not schedule grass-mowing or leaf-blowing before 10 a.m. on Saturdays or Sundays.

Parking

-- Let your neighbors in the close quarters (such as an apartment or cul-de-sac) know when you are planning a party with multiple guests. Apologize in advance for any parking-related inconvenience that may occur.

Construction

-- If you have planned substantial renovation work, send a note to your neighbors with beginning and ending dates of the project and the daily working hours. Assure them that you have instructed your contractor that there must be no spilling over of the site onto neighboring properties. Include in the envelope two carwash gift certificates apologizing for the inevitable dust. Send an e-mail to neighbors to give updates or get feedback about how your contractor is doing. [ Source: P.M. Forni. Ph.D. Adapted in part from The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude, to be published by St. Martin's Press in 2008]

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