From ear-shattering music next door to axe-wielding "psychos," it seems almost every neighborhood -- even in Southwest -- has had the nasty neighbor problem at some point in time.
In some cases, illegal activity is the problem, but often, the most vexing behavior is a steady drip-drip-drip of nuisances that no police officer can solve.
In many cases, there are community resources that can help solve a seemingly intractable problem. However, in some cases, a household's livability was so compromised -- and the laws to stop it so murky or non-existent -- that people had to move to get away from their problem neighbors.
For this story, sources of first-hand Southwest neighborhood accounts will remain anonymous, along with their neighborhood, for safety's sake.
Axe to the max One Southwest resident -- we'll call him Sam -- said the problem with the couple next door started small: their dog barking by his fence. But difficulties soon escalated; he said his problems with his next-door neighbors really got bad following a disagreement regarding their property line.
Sam said there was a crabapple tree in his yard, near the border of his neighbor's yard. "One day he came over with a chain saw and topped the tree, cut all the branches off. It had just blossomed," he said. "He said it was his property, but it wasn't."
Michele Gullickson Moore, executive director of the Minneapolis Mediation Program, 310 E. 38th St., said although she can't reveal names and specific factors, she has dealt with many Southwest cases between neighbors, and property line disagreements are common.
Moore said she believes a Midwest mentality about property ownership is at the root of many neighborhood disputes. She describes it as, "I own it, so I can do whatever I want."
Sam said he doesn't know what initiated his neighbor's bad feelings toward him, but he said he suspected alcohol was involved. He also said he had been recently successful in his career and felt his neighbor was jealous.
Until his neighbor massacred his tree, Sam said the neighbor had been friendly. He said after the tree's crew cut, the problems just got worse; at one point his neighbor came after him with an axe. "I got in the house and called 911," he said, telling police, "They're total psychos, really weird."
The incident resulted in an arrest but no conviction. Sam said the incidents caused him to sell his house and move, though he said he felt he was a good neighbor. "I loaned them yard equipment when they needed it," he said, "I was a good neighbor to them."
Fifth Precinct CCP/Safe Officer Scott Shepard said axe-wielding cases are rare, but over the years he has seen many fighting neighbors. He said most of the time his calls about neighbor problems are from homeowners who sometimes have feuds that go on for years. Shepard said. Many times, he's seen those disagreements result in harassment or restraining orders.
"I've sat and listened to stories for hours," he said.
Shepard said disputes sometimes take care of themselves.
In Linden Hills, he said, there was a house that was causing great concern for the whole neighborhood. He said that prompted a meeting, because the neighbors suspected the owners were involved in drugs and other types of criminal behavior.
"The guys were arrested the previous week for a burglary," Shepard said.
Although the owners were not at the meeting, he said they ended up moving the next week.
Shepard said it's a difficult situation, because the police will obviously get involved if there's a criminal incident; however, if there's not, there's not a whole lot he can do. He said many times he refers them elsewhere (for possible solutions, see sidebar, page 7).
Andrea Jenkins, aide to City Councilmember Robert Lilligren (8th Ward), said their office gets similar calls from feuding residents. She said for non-criminal neighborhood disputes, she's found the mediation center to be a positive way for neighbors to deal with their disagreements.
"It gives people a chance to talk in a less heated manner," she said.
Just plain jerks In another case, a Southwest resident we'll call Elaine said the inability to enforce civility is the most frustrating part of her neighbor problem. "There are no laws requiring that you be a good neighbor -- you can just be a jerk," she said.
Elaine said excessive noise has been her biggest problem. She said she can often hear her next-door neighbor's conversation and is frustrated when he blasts music.
She said she's tried to go over and talk with him directly, but the neighbor was unresponsive. "You get so worn down trying to fight the battle directly," she said.
Finally, Elaine said, she began calling the police. She said her neighbor was no stranger to the police, who had been called there many times for domestic disputes. Elaine said there had been previous domestic assaults at the house, which also caused her to worry.
Shepard said when he encounters these situations, he lets people know what their options are legally, if any, and also includes the mediation option. "A lot [who are] referred never go," he said, "because both parties have to agree to go."
Elaine said because of her neighbor's consistently bad behavior, she saw no point in attempting mediation.
Moore said despite the number of people who don't come, her organization is swamped with cases, handling 1,100 cases and over 5,000 people last year. She said only about 65 percent of the calls she gets go to actual mediation.
Elaine said after all she's been through with her neighbor, she's exhausted. She said things have become so unbearable with her loud and disturbing neighbor that she's moving too. "We sold our house," she said, "I just can't stand to live here anymore."
She said it's worrisome that the police and city haven't done more to help with the problem. "It's frustrating that the police continue to get called to that address," she said. "There's no city follow-up."
Elaine said the neighbor had been arrested for domestic assaults, but no one ever pressed charges, so the behavior just continued. She said calling the police for the noise issues was futile, because the neighbor would turn the music down when asked to do so; but then he'd turn it back up after waiting a while.
Outlasting the neighbor In a different area of Southwest, one resident we'll refer to as George said he got lucky because his problem neighbor was the one who moved.
He said his neighbor used to operate a used car business out of his home, storing cars on the street, fixing them there, and meeting customers there for test-drives. To top it off, said George, "he didn't have a license."
He said he confronted the neighbor directly, but when he didn't get anywhere, he took his case to city licensing. George said he began taking pictures of the activity, and wrote down license plate numbers.
He said going to the authorities was a helpful tool -- enough to spur his entrepreneurial neighbor to move himself and his operation elsewhere.
Because his neighbor's disturbing behavior was illegal, George said there were more channels available to alleviate the problem. "If it's not illegal, you're in rough shape," he said. "If it's just bad behavior, you're pretty much stuck."
The Mediation Center's Moore said that, overall, neighborhood disputes are bound to happen. She said anytime you put people in close living environments, someone is going to fight -- whether it's over loud music, dogs barking, disruptive kids or snow removal.
She said in all of the mediation cases she's seen, a common element missing is discussion between neighbors. "What's missing is how to have appropriate
confrontational skills," Moore said.
"People say, 'you mean I should talk to (my neighbor)?'"