Robert Frost once wrote, "Good fences make good neighbors." The most benign of nuisances can escalate into major confrontations, where mistrust and suspicion combine with ignorance about where one’s rights end and where another’s begin. This is true in spite of the age and (otherwise) pleasant disposition of the participants. (All of the neighbors in this true tale were retired—if not in their 80s.)
"I’d like you to come out and survey my ground for me."
"Yes, ma’am, and are you putting up a fence or something like that?"
"Well, I don’t know, but possibly. You see, I think my neighbor’s zoysia grass is coming over onto my property and, if so, I’m going to dig it up."
"I said I think my neighbor’s zoysia grass—you know, that kind that can take over a whole neighborhood—I think it’s on my property and I hate that stuff (and come to think about it, I don’t think much of him, either). Mind you, I’m a religious person and all, but I can’t take him anymore."
"And there is no fence between your lots?"
"No, that’s why I want you to come out and survey my lines."
Occasionally, a situation arises where the contestants are so angry with one another that substantive dialogue is impossible. Third parties can be useful in mediating such a situation and bringing about consensus. Unfortunately, surveyors are not formally trained in the subtleties of mediation, and therefore must "fly by the seat of the pants" when thrust into controversy, and hope for the best.
"There he is now. You should go and speak with him," said Mrs. Z.
I looked across at Mrs. Z’s neighbor, who had come out to work in his garden, and the salutation given the Roman gladiators came to mind: You Who Are About to Die, We Salute You! I strolled over to him.
In describing our role as surveyors, we often forget that diplomacy is an essential trait—especially in situations that could escalate into ugly scenes where the police are called. Fortunately (or unfortunately—depending upon your perspective) the public views us as uninterested players in the boundary retracement arena. Therefore, unless we blatantly take one side or the other, people are willing to presume us to be impartial. Still, when our client turns out to be completely unreasonable, it is difficult to avoid being considered a "hired gun."
"Personally, I think your client is a kook. Look at her lawn. The most attractive part is where my zoysia grass is."
I had to concede the point. Mrs. Z’s yard left something to be desired everywhere but where the offending grass had spread. Nevertheless, I felt it necessary to defend my presence there, if only to justify it in my mind.
"Well, I’m no judge of lawns, but she does have the right to decide which type of grass she mows."
"Suit yourself," he shrugged, and walked back to his garden.
Curtis Brown wrote that it is no longer good enough to simply be right. Professionals must also be able to convince others that we are right.
"I’d like you to put a stake every four feet or so."
"Every four feet? Mrs. Z, I don’t think you realize how close to one another the stakes would be; you’d almost be able to walk from stake to stake. How about if we try one at every eight feet (which still is probably excessive) and if you don’t find that sufficient, we can place the intermediate stakes."
"Well, alright, if you think that would be appropriate. I just want to make sure that the line is very clear to him."
"I don’t think he’ll have any trouble finding the line when we’re through."
Being trained to look carefully at evidence and to not assume that the apparent is automatically true, surveyors are justifiably skeptical when presented with unproven "facts." (For example, where did that topo come from? Is it reliable? How old is it?) Of course, we have no corner on that market; other professions are similarly schooled. It simply is not safe, as a rule, to assume that what appears to be true, is true.
"Oh my, he’s got an axe!," cried a horrified Mrs. Z.
"Aw, shut up! I’m just going to edge my lawn," shouted her neighbor. "Jeez, some people!"
But when everything is concluded, surveyors can look back with the satisfaction of having mollified the nerves (and perhaps stroked the egos) of the neighbors. Often, we will never hear from them again.
"Hello, Mr. Leininger? It’s Mrs. Z."
"Yes, ma’am. How are things on your street?"
"Well, my neighbor has kept to himself, but since you all put the stakes on my property line, I have dug a path between them and so it’s very clear where his grass should stop. We’re getting a stockade fence; hopefully his grass won’t be able to come on our side of it."
"So, you’ve decided to put up a fence after all?"
"Yes, we thought it was the best thing to do. The fence people are coming on Thursday, and I’d like you to come out and make sure it goes in the proper place."
"Mrs. Z, I really don’t think—"
"Oh, you must be there; I’m afraid he will tell the fence people to move it farther onto my property than is proper. If you’re there, he won’t try that."
"Well, if you insist; I’ll see you on Thursday."
The events related here are true and took place in 1989. I have wondered how neighborhood relations have fared since, but not having read about any of the participants in the newspaper, I assume that the erection of the fence smothered the controversy. Robert Frost’s adage held true, even 75 years after it was written. With the passage of time, the uproar over encroaching grass seems comical but, rest assured, it did not appear so to the neighbors at the time.
While the details of this controversy might be somewhat unusual, the underlying motivation—sovereignty over one’s domain—is of ancient age. Is such a notion without merit? No, but neighborly relations demand an understanding and respect for one another. Unfortunately, neither is a prerequisite for property ownership. Thus, clashes such as this one are not only possible, but likely, given the right mix of people and catalysts. Just another thread of the fabric we call "surveying."
Copyright © 1997 By Joel M. Leininger, LS