Home & Living

Nightmare Neighbors

What do you do when the people next door are driving you insane?

If you think your neighbors are bad, with their loud music and sloppy trashcan-lid replacement, consider the tales told by the still-jittery people who lived near a Mt. Washington family we’ll call The Smiths.

The tales told and recounted by neighbors (who almost all requested anonymity) are many, and include harassing calls to the police (to report neighbors as burglars when they were entering their own homes) and vehicular taunting (one family member used to gun the engine of his car—sans tailpipe—throughout the dinner hour in the summer).

The Smiths did love their cars. After two family members broke the windshield of another car during a fight, they replaced the glass with an ill-fitting plastic sheet that the driver had to peer over. Yet that wasn’t the car’s main problem: All four tires were flat, recalls Michael Gold, 43, who moved in across the street from the Smiths in 1998.

But neither the lack of windshield nor working tires stopped the Smiths from using the car as their regular transportation. “They were screaming around the neighborhood in this car on the rims—looking over this piece of plastic,” says Gold, a scientist who moved to Pittsburgh in October 2006. “Sparks [from the wheel rims] were flying everywhere.”

Many family members irritated neighbors, but some residents fondly remembered the Smiths’ 80-something grandmother, who had lived on the street for half a century. “[Mrs. Smith] was a nice woman, very kind,” says neighbor Diane Sheckells, 47, who moved into her in-laws’ house around the time the Smith house burned down.

Yes, burned down. The family’s ample Victorian in western Mt. Washington was destroyed by fire in early 2005, ending the active problems with the family—but the charred pile of rubble lingered for more than a year, visible amid high grass and vine-covered bushes.

“It was such an eyesore,” says Julia Pearson, 39, a four-year resident on the block of compact two-story bungalows. “They never really came back to deal with the property. They never came back to mow the lawn. Except the day the house was taken down—they came to get a rose bush and a lilac bush.”

Days before a showdown in court about the destroyed home—where four generations of Smiths once lived—a demolition crew tore the house down to the ground.

“Everyone is very happy about it being an empty lot,” says Pearson.

The rubble was removed, but the lot is still unkempt, said Sheckells, a city schools employee. “It’s becoming such a doggone eyesore again, because of all of the weeds that are growing,” she adds.

Nightmare neighbors: They steal your parking spot, harass you about noisy renovations, let their dogs use your lawn as a toilet, and make obscene gestures. Heck, they may even use their front yard as a helicopter landing pad.

What can you do to stop them? Mediation groups can help work it out, and they offer several tips toward solving neighborly disputes. But squabbles sometimes end up in the hands of lawyers or police, who may not always help much.

Baltimore County fields mostly noise complaints, police spokesman Corp. Mike Hill said. Police there don’t mind enforcing the law, which slaps up to a $500 fine or up to 90 days in jail for noise that “unreasonably disturbs the peace, quiet, and comfort of the neighboring inhabitants.”

Hill’s best advice? “Try to get along,” he says. “Sometimes just talking to the neighbor and coming to an understanding is all that needs to happen.”

In Howard County, an even worse feud rages on among two men in the Village of River Hill, in Columbia. Neighbors Timothy Cerny and David Elliott are due in court this month, capping off two civil suits, 13 criminal cases, 13 peace orders and nearly 100 visits from Howard County police since 1999. The dispute began, The Sun reported, over a proposed pool in Cerny’s backyard. In the current court case, Cerny, 47, faces a second-degree assault charge for allegedly spitting on Elliott, also 47, during an April screaming match that Elliott caught on videotape, the paper reported.

The Baltimore City rowhouse is a breeding ground for neighborly disputes, said Caroline Harmon, director of the Community Mediation Center on Greenmount Avenue in Baltimore. The private, nonprofit center intervenes in more than 1,000 conflicts a year from across the region.

Many people who come for mediation have called the police more than 30 times. Preventing that number of calls, Harmon said, translates into savings for both police and taxpayers.

“We offer people a way out, rather than going to police” with disputes over yards, porches, parking, trash, music, noise, and animals, Harmon says. “A lot of the issues have to do with Baltimore as a city of rowhouses, and that people are living 10 feet away from each other.”

Harmon has three simple tips to try to repair (and prevent) damage: Speak directly. Many disputes involve messages through family members or other neighbors. Said Harmon, “If people talk things out face to face, they can make it better.”

Spend time listening as well as talking. Talk about how the situation affects you, rather than how horrible the other person is.

And avoid saying “always” or “never,” or other phrases that escalate disputes.

For the people of Baltimore County’s Greenspring Valley, Nightmare Neighbor Number One was Martin Grass, the former chief executive of the Rite Aid drugstore chain.

Starting in the late 90’s, Grass commuted via helicopter from his gated home to work at Rite Aid headquarters in Camp Hill, Pa. Neighbors contested Grass’s landing the chopper in an area zoned for agricultural use.

“When it would come in, the whole house would shake, and it would wake up my kids,” says Deirdre Smith, 46, whose 1820’s farmhouse has been in her husband’s family for five generations. The chopper would come and go at all hours, and Smith blamed it for making her chickens curtail their laying. “It was very frightening and upsetting.”

Smith and her husband tried to solve the problem with a neighborly approach, but they received an unexpected response.

“He took my husband up in the helicopter to try to show him how cool it was,” recalls Smith, whose 70-acre farm is across the street from the disgraced executive’s former home. “He had a definite attitude that he had the right to do whatever he darn well felt like.”

The chopper use stopped in 2004, when Grass was sentenced to eight years in federal prison for accounting fraud.

Some neighbors get so worked up that they hire a lawyer to scare the other guy.

“People feel more strongly about their property than their kids or their other possessions,” says Stephen J. Kleeman, a Towson lawyer representing a rowhouse resident whose neighbor’s dogs allegedly urinated and defecated on his house. “When they get worked up about it, it’s just impossible to derail,” Kleeman says.

But not all attorneys like to take this kind of case. Hampden lawyer Alan F. Deanehan won’t handle criminal cases or family law, and he says he won’t do residential disputes, either. “The neighbors from hell is not my purview,” he says. “I try not to do anything I can die from.”

While nightmare neighbors might seem humorous to someone who has never had them, what’s really funny is how far people will go to catch each other in the act, Ellicott City attorney Mike Henderson says.

“They yell at each other, and they chase each other around with video cameras,” Henderson says. “I’d rather have a divorce case than a property line dispute because people are much more likely to agree on something.”

Realtors don’t like to touch these conflicts, either.

“It really does go against our code of ethics to talk about stuff like this,” says Ilene Kessler, president of the Maryland Association of Realtors. She hesitated even to offer advice on how to avoid ending up with nightmare neighbors.

“I know it sounds ridiculous, but I can’t tell you how to act,” Kessler says. “I can’t even tell my children how to act.”

One woman’s bad neighbors aren’t humans but rats, both dead and alive. Rats in the kitchen. Rats in the garbage. Rats in the attic. Rats running along a brick fence extending the length of the group of rowhouses.

“I’ve seen pictures, and it’s not mice, it’s rats,” says the woman’s lawyer, Shauntese Curry Trye, who has a case pending against the management company that owns the group of rowhouses the client lives in. The company blames the next-door neighbor.

Sometimes family ties complicate neighborly disputes. Attorney David Jacobson—a Roland Park resident whose neighbors once had a battle of abandoned junky convertibles—handled a case where land was passed down from grandparents. Hostile grandchildren subdivided the lots and built homes, which they separated with fences. One grandchild allegedly jumped the fence around his visually impaired cousin’s house and dug holes along it so his relative would fall during his walks, Jacobson says.

Jacobson says there’s an old adage among real estate lawyers, but this time it didn’t hold up: “Big fences make good neighbors.”