After spending a couple of hours weeding and sprucing up her own yard this summer, A.L. looked over at her neighbor's house, the two-family building next door, and noticed the overgrown shrubs, weeds growing just a few feet from the foundation, and grass that needed a good trim.
The houses in A.L.'s neighborhood are close together, and her yard touches on the neighbor's yard. Aside from regularly mowing the entire lawn between their houses -- a portion of which belongs to the neighbor -- A.L. is uncertain how to improve the rest of the neighbor's yard, which goes untended.
The owner of the house next door does not live there and rents out each of the apartments. Several roommates live in each unit. These neighbors are nice, quiet, respectful people, A.L. says. She hasn't seen the owner of the house for months.
It would probably take A.L. an extra hour or so to mow the rest of the neighbor's lawn, do some weeding and trim the unruly hedges. Other than mowing between their houses, however, the only other things she's ever done are to prune an overgrown rose bush that caught the garments of anyone walking on the side lawn, and remove a dead azalea bush.
A.L. knows the neighbor's yard would look a lot better -- as would the neighborhood -- if she just want ahead and spruced up the property herself.
A.L. said that a neighbor down the street was once fined $50 by the city for letting the weeds in his yard grow so high that they partially blocked the public sidewalk. Her next-door neighbor's overgrown plants, however, are confined to the yard. (When the neighbor who was fined took ill, A.L. cut back his weeds so he wouldn't be fined again.)
"Is it my responsibility to look after (my neighbor's) yard?" A.L. asks. "Would it be wrong if I just walked over there and spent some time cleaning up the place?"
It's obviously not A.L.'s responsibility to maintain her neighbor's yard. And while it might seem neighborly to simply take care of the mess, this would be inappropriate. It is her neighbor's responsibility to decide how she wants the yard maintained...or not maintained. If A.L.'s attitude is that her neighbor would never notice any work she did, this is not justification for tending to her neighbor's property.
The right thing, if A.L. really believes the neighbor's lawn maintenance issue should be addressed, is to talk to the owner of the house. She can choose how to broach the subject, perhaps letting the owner know that since she last visited, the weeds, shrubs and lawn have gotten out of control. A.L. could then offer to mow the lawn and do some basic weeding. She should be sure to clear all such work with the owner before doing anything.
However, if the homeowner takes A.L. up on her offer, she might then expect A.L. to take permanent responsibility for maintaining the yard at her rental house. This already seems to be the case with the side yard they share. Such an arrangement may be fine with A.L., but the right thing to do is talk with her neighbor before taking on the task.
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 programat Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
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(c) 2014 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNECONTENT AGENCY, LLC.