How to handle neighbour trouble?

My wife and I moved into a new house earlier this year in the countryside. We introduced ourselves to all our neighbours we moved in, with the intention of getting to know them as time went on. We're aware that we'll need to build good relationships with our neighbours..

So it's with great disappointment that a conflict has arisen with this neighbour. He has always lived in the area, and now here we are, the newcomers from out of town. He is quite handy, a hard worker, and is always out working in his yard. After speaking with him, I know he's ex-military, and he hinted that he has PTSD and that is why, he said, he is home all the time. He seems reliant on his machines (lawn-mowers, power tools, a 4 wheeler, hot tub, new swimming pool, etc) which hasn't been an issue for us, but he doe like to have his music turned on most of the time, including overnight to scare away raccoons.

Because we are in earshot of his music with our windows open at night (we don't have an air conditioner), I went over to speak with him a few weeks back, and he has since been more mindful of his music, and built a wooden enclosure about his swimming pool for privacy, and likely also as a sound barrier, which doesn't really help too much.

We said nothing more about his music, because if he did build his enclosure as a sound barrier, then he went to considerable time and expense to deal with the issue. So we decided we would build our hedge of trees and plants, and let one side of our property go wild to act as our own sound barrier.

He has another habit, which is to regularly burn his plastic garbage. Because he has other neighbours closer to him than us on the other sides, he waits until the wind is blowing roughly in our direction, and then starts his fire. When this happens we go around the house and close all the windows on our side before the house fills with his smoke.

Today when we were out working in the yard, which is between our house and his, he started burning plastic garbage again. I went over and suggested to him (calmly and politely) that we are breathing in the smoke from his plastic garbage. He sighed, and then started putting on more and more plastic to make even more smoke and ignored me. I walked away, continued working for a while under more of this smoke, and tried again after I had calmed down to talk to him again, but he said he didn't want to talk to me.

Now he has his music on full blast and there has been, for the past few hours since, lots of smoke billowing past our house.

I've been trying to put myself into his shoes. He has a small property, he is surrounded on all sides by other people, he has told me before in passing that he's 'landlocked', so now we've moved into the house on his one remaining open front. So he has certain behaviors that he is used to do doing, and here us newcomers are, complaining not long after moving in.

I am unsure how to deal with this. Maybe we complained too much? We didn't complain about anything other than his music, and now the smoke, and we tried a couple of times to talk to them about other things, just to somehow engage with them about other things.

I will look into bylaws, etc, but I'm aware that a neighbour conflict is the last we need, for numerous reasons so I'm reluctant to go down that route. And there is part of me that is also aware that people burning plastic is going to become more common as the long descent takes hold, and maybe I should have just kept my mouth shut.

Any advice would be most welcome!

You're in a difficult situation.
Best I can say is become part of the town in a dozen different ways.
Local fire and rescue (volunteer!)
Local library (volunteer!)
Kids in local school? (volunteer!)
Join a church (volunteer!)
Kids in local scouting groups? (volunteer!)
Attend local municipal meetings (introduce yourself and always be polite!)

When I say volunteer, I mean do the scut work that always needs to be done, not telling everyone how you did it better in the big city. If the community as a whole thinks positively of you and yours, it's easier. You'll earn social credit for when you need it.

Unfortunately, it will take ages.
Equally unfortunate, you're correct. More people will be burning plastic or other obnoxious things because they need to in order to keep warm in the winter.

How old is he? You may have to wait it out. And plant more yews as screening.

Best wishes to you and yours.

Thank you. He's in his early 40s, so we will be waiting a while.

That makes sense about the volunteering. We've been so occupied since moving in with renovations and preparations that we've had little time, but clearly we're going to need to make some time to start building those relationships in the community.

I find myself struggling to contain my own anger at the situation, and to continuously try to imagine myself in his perspective to 'humanize' the situation. We left for a few hours to clear our heads (literally and figuratively) and just came back to find he was still throwing things on the fire. Also, I suppose, literally and figuratively.

We tried our best with him, not long after making my complaint about the music, we offered him a carpentry job, which he turned down. He's always been distant and reserved with us ever since we moved in, which is his business, of course.

I will talk to the municipality tomorrow to find out our options, and then we will likely just have to consistently push back via the authorities. Then we'll have to make friends with other neighbours, volunteer, etc, and accept that with this neighbour, it's going to always be difficult.

ClareBroommaker's picture

He might really enjoy burning things, so less likely to take you up on the offer, but maybe you could offer to take _all_ his plastic for recycling & disposal.

I can understand him feeling landlocked when he previously had an unoccupied side for a feeling of privacy and a psychological way out. (I live in a densely built part of the city and feel better when the houses on either side have been empty.) Maybe he has been living there since his was the only house around and the newer houses have really changed things?

I imagine he put up that fence for privacy rather than to contain his sound. He might like hearing that you intend to let vegetation grow up on that side of your property, especially if it was wild before your house was built.

Are there others who live with him? Just keep mind that his housemates might not bee too fond of plastic burning, either. Perhaps any offer to take his plastic could be made through a housemate. Ex: "Hey, Sandy, could you tell Bob I could take your household plastic waste off your/his hands for recycling and disposal? It'd be no trouble for me."...Sandy thinks"Hoo! I would be so glad if I could get Bob to stop burning that nasty stuff; it chokes me." Sandy says, "Jbucks, that's a really nice offer. Thank you. I've been telling Bob not to do that. I'll talk to him about your offer."

Thank you! Right now tensions are high with him, he walked off during the earlier incident I described and I went over 30 minutes later to try to talk it out, but he said he didn't want to talk to me.

He has a wife and two children.

Yes, your point about him feeling landlocked is something I greatly sympathize with, I wouldn't want the same thing to happen to me, either. I'm pretty sure that, yes, he's been in the area for a long time, and houses have been built up around him. He's had conflicts with another neighbour, apparently, about dogs, and so he probably feels like now we are yet another neighbour he has a conflict with.

That's why we tried to step carefully. We let a lot slide. There are two large trees that grow on the property line that our survey map says partially belong to us that he thinks are his, and we had a chat with him about it and he told us that his grandfather had planted those trees. He doesn't have plans to cut them down, so it's not a big deal for us to cede them to him.

I just don't understand why he doesn't realize that his smoke and music cause issues for other people. Some weeks back, he started burning every evening. That was during a very hot period, and without air conditioning, we rely on drafts and open windows. During that time we would wake up in the mornings with an acrid taste in our mouths and headaches.

But we held off saying anything to him up to now because we didn't want to be the troublemakers.

Sorry for the rant, and thanks again for your comment and idea! If things calm down, then maybe I can suggest I can take his plastic to the dump or recycling depot.

David Trammel's picture

You said you had been putting out feelers with the other neighbors. Talk to the ones who live on the other side of your neighbor. They've no doubt had to deal with the smoke in the past. Ask them how they resolved it.

Also try to see if there is one who is on better terms with him than you are. You can then mention to that person that someone in your family has health problems from the smoke. (Which isn't a lie, plastic smoke is toxic and breathing it on a regular basis is going to give you problems, not to mention start making your house smell.) Tell the friendlier neighbor that you tried to speak with the annoying neighbor but have had no luck, so you are thinking of contacting the city about it. Perhaps the message will get up the chain to him, and he'll consider that modifying his behavior voluntarily would be better than having to deal with the city.

My guess is that he's had issues with this with the other neighbors, that's why he only burns it when the wind is in your direction. It also sounds like the fire and burning is his way of dealing with stress, either from family issues or yes, even PTSD. If that's the case then taking his way of dealing with stress away is going to add even more stress. You don't mention if he seems to be having family problems as well. The burning may just be the tip of the problems.

I would also start going to your city council meetings immediately. You should do that anyway when you move into a new neighborhood but in this case its even more important. Go sit and just listen to what issues the city is handling. Meet your city representative too. Then the following month, if you haven't had any luck getting him to stop, go to the next city meeting and discuss it with your city rep. Be sure to take some cell phone videos of him burning the plastic and especially of the smoke though, and start documenting the number of times he does it in a journal, so its not just a he said/he said situation. Him doing it once a month isn't as much of an issue as him doing it 3-4 times a week.

Ultimately, letting a bad situation fester is only going to make it worse. While I understand you don't want to escalate things, being new is actually an advantage for you. You can set boundaries now easier than if you had let it slide for many years. Having your next door neighbor pissed at you is bad but you being pissed off at the neighbor and not doing anything about it, is going to blow over onto your relationship with your new home, and with your family.

ADDED: You don't mention, is this suburban or rural?

Thank you, that makes a great deal of sense!

We are rural, in a very small village (no shops) a 10 min drive outside a large town of 8000 or so people.

I will talk with my wife about your suggestions, there are a lot of good ideas to pursue. There is one neighbour who we can chat with further. And indeed, meeting our municipal representative is an important step. And yes, he could be so active in his property, including burning, as a way of dealing with stress.

I just drafted a letter to the problem neighbours. I will stew it in some more overnight and maybe a letter that is cordial and acknowledges his standpoint, while also being firm about contacting the authorities may go some way. If he realizes we will take action if needed, but dialogue is still possible, then perhaps that will descalate the situation.

David Trammel's picture

BTW, I recommend everyone who can, always make effort to get involved in their local governance. We live in a representative democracy (for the most part) but that doesn't mean much if you don't make sure those who make policy, represent your wishes.

What's the old saying? "If you don't vote, don't bitch."

While you don't have the luxury of waiting, given the problems you have with your neighbor, the time to get involved is before you need the government's help with a problem, not after. Go to your city/township's city council meeting. Sit in and listen to the issues that they are dealing with, and observe what your neighbors (the one's who voice their opinions) are saying. This can often give you advance notice of actions which will directly affect you. Its easier to make changes in the development phase than to fight the issue on the streets.

Above all get to know your direct representative. Find out what their opinions are, what issues they care for, and how open they are to making changes you feel, as a Green Wizard, will benefit and help you community as collapse takes its toll. All those problems we know are coming, are going to affect small communities first. Its easier to try and get laws passed that allow for residents to raise chickens in the backyard, or to have front yard gardens, if you know your city rep, or know that is something they agree with.

If you like them, then getting involved in their next political campaign is a good way to get them to "owe" you. It doesn't need to be anything more than manning a phone bank for a evening sometimes, or putting out a yard sign, though if you have the money, a few hundred dollars in a donation goes a long way, especially in small town races.

Go to rallies for both, sit in on their speeches, shake their hands and introduce yourself, ask them what their stand are on the issues you want to have enacted. And you know what, if you're not sure whether to back the incumbent or the challenger, back both. Though I wouldn't put both of their signs in your yard, lol.

That way, no matter who wins, your representative knows YOU.

It really helps to know who's who in your local government.
Very few people attend local municipality meetings yet what your mayor and council decide have huge effects on daily life.
Start attending.
Your municipality will have some kind of online newsletter. Sign up at once and read them! Look for other online newsletters.
Derry Township has weekly (or monthly) online updates for the township as a whole, the library, parks and recreation, zoning board, and several others. So will your community.
Do you have a weekly newspaper (or a daily) that is LOCAL focused? If you do, subscribe and read it.

If you're plugged in (and it's easy) you won't be surprised when your municipality decides to build the Taj Mahal of swimming pools. They'd only been working on it for ten years when I found out. I hadn't been paying attention. I do now.

Moreover, if I needed to do something to my house, I could ask Chuck at city development for help in navigating the law. He's far more likely to be helpful because he knows me and knows I'm not out to cause him trouble.

Get to know your local board members. They're human and doing a very difficult and thankless job.

No real update. I am calmer, thankfully, and I apologize for my semi-rants above.

I also asked JMG on Magic Monday about how this relates to binaries and ternaries as he has written about those things extensively, and how to avoid getting locked in to a binary in the current situation with this neighbour.

Upon reflection, I just realized that all of your ideas were ways to turn the situation into ternaries. Volunteering, suggesting to help him with his garbage, going to city council to meet representatives, etc, all of those were ways to transcend the current conflict we have with our neighbour. We still don't know how best to handle the immediate issue as it currently stands, but it sure has helped to have had your input to broaden our perspective.

Thanks very much once again!

David Trammel's picture

Sometimes we all need to vent, I encourage anyone who visits here to feel free to do just that.

And contrary neighbors are going to be a continuing fact of life in the Long Descent. Learning how to (more or less) peacefully co-exist with those who live around you is a skill we've unfortunately let slide, much like the rest of our tools for living in communities. Our techno civilization and consumer society actively promotes people becoming hermits as a way to control us and to get us to spend money.

A side affect of that abandonment of curtesy, or at least that tolerance, has be that more and more people feel that their wants are all that matter, and that taking into consideration how your wants affect others, doesn't matter.

One of the reasons I put the Twelfth and Thirteen Circles in the line up, was that relearning critical thinking and community building are going to be more important than gardening and retro skills in the collapsing world we're headed for. The Green Wizard who is skilled in subtle persuasion and in how to lead groups to making decisions that benefit the most people, not the few will be the ones who help their community survive as a whole.

We'll revisit this subject as time goes by.