Saturday, September 13, 2008

Nasty Neighbors? Give Arbitration A Try

Disputes with neighbors are inevitably going to crop up from time to time. We've got a suggestion: Don't litigate, arbitrate.

Arbitration: A better way to mend fencesNot long ago, Michael Daly was working on a screenplay when his upstairs neighbor suddenly cranked up the Doobie Brothers. The stereo was so loud, says Daly, "I felt like I was inside a drum."

Daly thought about suing, since it wasn't the first time this guy had busted his concentration. But instead he tried something else: neighborhood mediation. At a free session sponsored by the Los Angeles County Bar Association, Daly's neighbor agreed to keep quiet. Total out-of-pocket expense: a $10 donation.

There are more than 500 neighborhood-mediation centers around the nation that specialize in resolving potentially bitter border wars. You may not be able to find an office in more rural areas, but they have popped up in nearly every metropolitan area in the United States in the past 15 years. Numerous other mediation centers are operated by church groups.

While most people are still unaware of neighborhood mediation, it's becoming increasingly popular for two reasons: First, these centers generally resolve neighbor feuds free. Second, according to the American Bar Association, neighbors are able to settle their differences with the help of a mediator 90% of the time.

There's also been a proliferation of private mediators. More often than not, they are lawyers, psychologists or social workers who generally charge about $100 per dispute. Probably the only reason to pay these fees is if you'd feel more comfortable having a legal or counseling professional handle your case rather than a volunteer at a nonprofit center.

The place to find a mediator or a neighborhood center is the Yellow Pages, where they're generally listed under the heading "Mediators." You can also call the local bar association. Or the police. In recent years, some officers have begun carrying cards with the telephone number of the nearest center so they can have it ready when they respond to neighbor disputes.

Minding your own (home) businessThinking about opening a business out of your home sweet home? If you're just going to be working on a computer in an unused bedroom, you're probably in the clear. But if the business is any more elaborate than that, you may be about to run afoul of your local zoning codes. Most towns have laws on the books that limit the scope of home businesses. Originally they were intended to keep hair salons and auto body shops out of residential areas.

Luckily, it usually takes a complaint before the rules are enforced -- so if you have good relations with your neighbors, you probably don't have to worry. But, if your neighbor brings a violation to the attention of local authorities, you may be shocked to find that you have little choice but to comply with the rules.

You should know the zoning restrictions that apply to you, even if you choose to ignore them. The codes vary widely, but they often prohibit home businesses from creating traffic, posting signs, using on-street parking, hiring employees or using too much space in their home for business uses.

If you decide to go ahead and open a business where you won't be able to comply with the exact letter of the law, discuss it with your neighbors. Explain how you will be an asset to the block by being there during the day to keep an eye on their homes, sign for occasional deliveries or serve as a resource for kids home alone after school.

One of the biggest irritations to neighbors is having delivery trucks rumble through the local streets all day. For that reason, home-office experts suggest renting a post-office box or using a service such as Mail Boxes Etc.

If you see regular clients, try to visit them at their offices, or communicate with them by phone as much as possible. If you're storing work materials in your garage -- a no-no in some cities -- call one of those mini-storage places and start renting some space.

While you can always hire a lawyer and fight back, that's expensive, and there's not much chance you'll win. (Courts have upheld towns' zoning laws almost unanimously.) A smarter strategy is to get plugged in to local politics before you ever get turned in.

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