Waging War on Your Neighbors... and other Life Lessons
Land use disputes between neighbors always make for an interesting read and the following case concerning the City of Post Falls, Idaho is no different. See Greenfield v. City of Post Falls 2014 WL 1343478. There are a variety of lessons that could be taken from this decision but mainly it is a good read on how a dispute between neighbors can go terribly wrong.
In 2013, Christina Greenfield filed a complaint against the City of Post Falls, its mayor, and various administrators and employees (past and present), as well as members of the Post Falls Police Department, seeking damages for the Defendants’ alleged failure to enforce its zoning laws to her detriment. The events giving rise to the complaint begin with Ms. Greenfield’s purchase of her home in 2005, which was when she first became aware that her neighbors (the “Wurmlingers”) allegedly were operating an illegal bed and breakfast out of their home. Ms. Greenfield claimed that the operation of a bed and breakfast was prohibited under the City’s ordinances and that the City took no action to enforce its laws.
Part of Ms. Greenfield’s dispute with the Wurmlingers involved an arborvitae hedge consisting of twenty-four arborvitae shrubs planted by the Wurmlingers on the property line separating Greenfield’s property from the Wurmlinger property. Greenfield alleged the hedge constituted a fence, that it exceeded the height limit set forth in the City’s Fence Ordinance, and that it obstructed Greenfield’s view. Greenfield demanded enforcement of the fence ordinance and the City sent enforcement letters to the Wurmlingers. The Wurmlingers responded by trimming some of the hedges, but not all.
In 2006 Ms. Greenfield hired an attorney and a demand letter was sent to the Wurmlingers directing them to trim the arborvitae hedges to five feet in height. The Wurmlingers and Ms. Greenfield thereby entered into an agreement that the hedges would be maintained at six feet.
In of 2008, the City issued a warning letter to the Wurmlingers regarding the expansion of their business activities. Ms. Greenfield alleged the Wurmlingers ignored the City’s demand to scale back their bed and breakfast business and that, but for one letter, the City did nothing further to enforce its zoning ordinances to halt the neighbors’ activities. Ms. Greenfield persisted in attempting to have the City enforce its zoning regulations by writing several letters in 2009, which she alleged were not responded to by the City.
As you can tell from the history of the case so far, this was an ongoing battle between not only the neighbors but also the City in regards to the hedges and the Wurmlingers bed and breakfast.
On April 1, 2010, Ms. Greenfield used some self-help remedies and trimmed ten of the arborvitae shrubs to six feet. Mr. Wurmlinger called the police, who began an investigation. The police submitted a criminal complaint against Ms. Greenfield and as a result, charged her with Felony Malicious Injury to Property. Ms. Greenfield was served a summons to appear in district court, wherein she was formally charged. Ms. Greenfield alleged she was arrested, hand cuffed, searched, and forced to sit in a chair for several hours while being processed for the crime. Greenfield was arraigned on the charges on June 23, 2010, and she appeared before Judge Friedlander, the City Attorney’s wife. Because the judge did not recuse herself given the history between Greenfield and the City Attorney’s office, Ms. Greenfield alleges a miscarriage of justice. On October 4, 2011, Ms. Greenfield was found not guilty of the criminal charges.
That was not the end of the hedge dispute, Ms. Greenfield alleged in this case that Mr. Wurmlinger trespassed on her property ten times to trim the arborvitae shrubs and each time the police would not prosecute Mr. Wurmlinger. Mr. Wurmlinger also filed numerous malicious injury property reports against Ms. Greenfield beginning in 2007 and continuing through the date of the lawsuit. There are other claims by Ms. Greenfield in the lawsuit concerning conspiracy of the police force, the confiscation of garbage and other matters that make the case even more interesting.
The Court in this case granted the Defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings without leave to amend. This case is interesting not so much for its legal holding but as an example of how disputes between neighbors can drag on for years and take on a life of their own. I often receive calls from people complaining that a neighbor is not following the conditions and restrictions within their particular subdivision. While I think it is important to enforce the restrictions of a neighborhood’s CCRs, I also think it is important (and generally easier on one’s life) to try to work things out with your neighbors before turning to the courts.
For most of us our homes are the single largest investment we will make. Our emotional attachment to where we live sometimes has a way of clouding our judgment when it comes to making decisions about our neighbor’s actions. My suggestion for people that have problems with their neighbor is to seek guidance from someone that has no outside involvement and can rationally examine the situation. Such actions should be cheaper and less complicating for your life than waging a long term war against your neighbors.