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It's a vengeful day in the neighbourhood Add to ...

As Jacqueline Desjardins's garage leaned precariously over her neighbour's lawn, the man would stand by watching, and laugh.

Later, the 74-year-old Sudbury woman would find her car scratched up, a spare tire slashed. Used oil containers appeared next to her well. And then there were the two-by-fours: Buried near the wobbly garage, they were spiked with thick, four-inch-nails that jutted upward. But things really heated up when her 78-year-old husband, Lucien Desjardins, accused his neighbour, Ahti Blick, of trying to run him down with his car.

The incidents were noted by Ontario Superior Court Judge Paul Kane this month when he fined Mr. Blick and Maija Blick $57,000 in damages for trying to sink the Desjardins' garage by digging trenches and running water underneath it with a garden hose.

It was the culmination of a feud that began decades earlier, pivoting entirely around the small garage: The Desjardins said it sat 17 inches from the lot line; the Blicks believed it encroached on their property. After many fruitless calls to police, Ms. Desjardins attempted to sell the house, but the notorious dispute meant no one was buying.

"It's not so much the digging that bothered me," Ms. Desjardins said. "He was standing there laughing at us."

The case highlights the exasperation of victims of neighbour rage, which in the worst of cases can force people from their dream homes, leave them with staggering legal costs and cause serious health issues, as well as marital strain.

Post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression and loss of appetite were just some of the ailments suffered by Ralph Scala's neighbours on Quebec Avenue in the west-end Junction area of Toronto. There, Mr. Scala's seven-year reign of terror against 26 locals involved hired goons, as well as a tombstone and roadkill strewn on the lawn of one elderly victim.

Although Mr. Scala pleaded guilty to 49 charges and was banned from the area for three years, the damage was done: The neighbours' victim impact statements revealed intense fears of reprisal.

For nearly two years, the neighbours of Wychwood Park, an exclusive Toronto enclave, were similarly traumatized. Routinely, residents who parked on a narrow street had all four of their tires slashed. Neighbours were stunned when they learned Albert Fulton, the local archivist and Neighbourhood Watch leader, had been arrested. (After reports of the charges surfaced, Mr. Fulton committed suicide.)

Although the cases are extreme, each began innocuously enough, with what one neighbour perceived as a grave slight on the part of the other.

But such matters can quickly escalate, said Peter Bruer, manager of conflict resolution services at St. Stephen's Community House in Toronto, where 50 volunteer mediators help bickering neighbours talk it out face to face.

"We've seen situations that have driven people out of their homes. It could start with a leaky eavestrough that ices up somebody else's walkway."

Typical issues include parking, fences, garbage, flooding downspouts and barking dogs - or something that simply "gets under their skin." Although St. Stephen's receives roughly 500 calls a year, one-third of which are referred by police, just 100 make it to the meeting stage because one party is usually more keen than the other.

"In some cases, there is no law, and in other cases, there's a law but it's very hard to enforce," said Mr. Bruer, adding that neighbour disputes "boil down to the fact that people don't respect each other."Bill Saundercook, the city councillor in Mr. Scala's ward, deals with feuding neighbours three times a week. The most recent squabble involved water drainage between two houses.

"I can point to a troublemaker pretty much on every street in my ward that neighbours call and complain about. It's the cranky old man that's stealing the children's ball when it comes on his lawn or someone trying to get back at their neighbour by building their fence higher than they can," Mr. Saundercook said.

The councillor usually begins negotiations by phone. Failing that, he goes in person: "If I pay a visit to one, I pay a visit to the other."

As neighbours will tend to hastily call in lawyers and bylaw-enforcement officers, Mr. Saundercook finds himself cautioning them against full-scale attacks.

His advice: "You see your neighbours way more than you see your own family. If you decide to escalate a matter that might be trivial in its outset, then just do that with your eyes wide open."

To help prevent arguments from intensifying, Toronto's Municipal Licensing and Standards (which handles 110,000 calls annually) ran its 130 investigators through alternative dispute resolution training in 2006. The program gives officers better tools to mend grudges.

While private property can "increase the energy" because owners have invested money and time, Mr. Bruer says St. Stephen's also gets many calls from renters and roommates "driven crazy by the close proximity of somebody else's lifestyle that interferes with their lifestyle."

As urban density intensifies, feuding neighbours may become a liability for real estate agents as well.

"If you know that the neighbour's a crank, you have to say they're a crank," especially when representing the buyers, said Toronto broker Chander Chaddah. "Clients are owed full disclosure of any information that you as a practitioner may be in position of that could have an impact on their decision making. ... It's part of our code of business practices."

When Mr. Chaddah took prospective buyers to a client's home on Quebec Avenue, the street where Mr. Scala terrorized his neighbours and where his incapacitated mother still lives, the buyers grew worried: Mr. Scala may return in three years. (Police have told neighbours to keep their surveillance equipment at the ready and keep detailed notes on suspicious activity.)

As for the Desjardins, they will once again square off against the Blicks on April 25, this time for court costs. The families are still neighbours, but the Desjardins have installed three security cameras.

"I get up in the morning and I say to my husband, 'What is today going to bring?' " Ms. Desjardins said. "We never know."

Follow on Twitter: @ZosiaBielski

 

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