Being a good neighbor has always been a kind of unspoken agreement between property owners to more or less follow The Golden Rule—i.e. treat the guy next door as you’d like to be treated. But with the growing incidence of property disputes in the Hudson Valley, being “neighborly,” is increasingly becoming a legal issue, defined by zoning boards and judges.
One reason these conflicts are on the rise is because we live in an area with a rapidly growing population and complex land use. Industrial, commercial, agricultural, residential, historic, and recreational plots co-exist with strong local efforts to preserve the beauty and green open space of the Hudson Valley.
The pressure to meet all these needs and desires gets even tougher when economic times are hard. Indeed, many of the recent disputes between neighbors that I’ve dealt with have to do with the fact that one party has been driven, by economic necessity, to use their residential land for commercial purposes. Usually they’re simply trying to make a living or offset living expenses by creating a small-scale farm, keeping livestock, or installing renewable energy technology. I’ve seen neighbors wage battles over the right to raise goats, board horses and dogs, expand a shooting range, erect solar farms, stockpile landscaping trucks and equipment, turn a vacant lot into a music venue, and operate a wind-powered turbine.
Of course, there are also more common nuisance complaints between neighbors too, most of which involve noise: a relentless barking dog, a rooster crowing at sunrise, loud ATV use, and high-decibel music. The country, it turns out, can be a pretty noisy place, depending on what you live next to.
So what do you do as a property owner when your bucolic home is threatened by the activities next door? The first step I always advise homeowners to take is the simplest: talk to your neighbor with consideration and respect. It’s surprising, and regrettable, how rare this face-to-face dialogue happens when an issue arises. Delivering the complaint directly, rather than through a town official or an attorney, is much less inflammatory and threatening.
If one-on-one discussion doesn’t get you satisfaction, try engaging support from your other neighbors. Their participation can add more credibility to your complaint and apply extra pressure. Also, check if there is a prohibition in your local zoning law that applies to your situation. Things like setback rules, noise ordinances, site plan approval for structures, and livestock regulations vary from town to town. If the law is on your side, then having a coalition of neighbors involved in the dispute will help move the town to enforce the appropriate zoning law. Otherwise, it’s often not a high priority for a town board to spend time and legal fees enforcing zoning regulations if only a few people are impacted.
Should none of these tactics work to resolve the conflict, hiring an attorney who deals in land use is your next best move. In your first consultation, be sure to bring along any photos, video, or recordings that help show the specific condition you’re opposing. Not only will it help your attorney identify legal issues, but such proof will kick-start next steps toward a resolution.