Sunday, April 22, 2012

Can this fence inspire good neighbors?

A reader from Southern California and her husband are replacing the old fence around three sides of their property. Her husband has taken on the project himself and does not want his wife's daily involvement. But, she writes, she still has to deal with the many issues that have come up with neighbors.

Originally, the escape of a neighbor's dog who is a "notorious digger" was blamed for the fence construction. But even after the dog was found, the neighbors decided a new fence was in order. Well, all of the neighbors except for the one couple who wanted nothing to do with the fence rebuilding and "whose yard is basically a junkyard" and have "exhibited threatening behavior in the past," my reader writes.

Most neighbors in her area do not know each other well. But she and her husband do know their neighbors. Initially, the erection of the fence was to be a project among all but one - the threatening one -- of the abutting neighbors. That's no longer the case.

"Everyone wanted in in the beginning," my reader writes. "But they all disappeared when help was needed. Now no one remembers that they were informed that the fence would go up."

She observes that the "spirit of cooperation has evaporated." Given that her husband has taken it on himself to make sure the fence is erected, she wonders if it is her responsibility to try to restore this cooperative spirit among neighbors originally gung-ho for the project.

If the neighbors made a commitment to help with the costs and labor of the fence repair, then they have an obligation to follow through on that commitment. My reader and her husband should not have to shoulder the burden of completing the project.

But my reader cannot force her neighbors to change their behavior. If the completion of the fence has become important to only her and her husband, then the right thing is for them to decide whether they want to complete it or, like their abutting neighbors, forget about the whole project.

Without a legal agreement to jointly build the fence, the reader and her husband have only the word of their neighbors to go on. That should have been enough, but as anyone who has ever been involved in a group project of any kind knows, there are often those who simply don't follow through. The choice is then to scuttle the whole project because not everyone participates or to move forward and get the job done.

Following through on their initial commitment to get the fence completed is a choice my reader and her husband made. While it would be good to think that her neighbors might rally and a "cooperative spirit" could be reinstated, it is not my reader's responsibility to force the issue.

It is often true that good fences do make good neighbors . . . or, at the very least, make the neighbors more tolerable.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


William Jacobson said...

Sounds like a little red hen problem, Jeffrey. All of the barnyard animals are in favor of a project until it comes time to work and then they scatter but want to reap the benefits when the project is completed... Seems that her husband has one of two choices, abandon the fence project for lack of consensus & shared responsibility or take on the project solely without expectation of assistance or upkeep... Since unlike bread in the little red hen story, there is no way to limit access and enjoyment of the fence to those who actively helped in its construction, its going to be all or nothing here. I recommend you abandon/delay any portion of the fence that you do not personally benefit from. Let your neighbors see the final product and wish they had joined in.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

Anonymous said...

I can't think of anything any more "fun" than to try to solve this unsolvable problem among some neighbors, one of whom has a "junkyard" in their backyard. I think Mr. Jacobson has made the ideal suggestion, but I can't believe these people will be able to convince their "neighbor" with the junkyard to help. "Fences do not good neighbors make" is the old saying that is very apt here.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

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