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The Globe and Mail

How to avoid 'kindergarten' antics with your neighbours, as seen in Forest Hill feud

Dog poop bag

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

The story of two couples embroiled in a $1.8-million lawsuit over dog doo, surveillance cameras and a staring problem in the wealthy Toronto enclave of Forest Hill has caught the attention of many neighbours this week.

The plaintiffs and defendants live across the street from each other. With 11 security cameras set up, the plaintiffs' 24/7 surveillance caught the neighbours misplacing some dog doo and also "occasionally allowing" their dog to "lift its leg in a canine way next to the bushes lining the plaintiffs' lawn." From there, we hear about cars parked legally but somehow offensively, 25-second-long staredowns, profanities spewed and middle fingers extended. A dictaphone is involved.

An Ontario Superior Court judge scolded the feuding neighbours – "educated professionals" – and dismissed their motion, ordering both parties to pay their own court costs, which skyrocketed to tens of thousands of dollars. "In my view, the parties do not need a judge; what they need is a rather stern kindergarten teacher," Justice Edward Morgan wrote in his decision, continuing, "There is no claim for … just plain thinking badly of a person who lives nearby."

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So just how does it escalate this way between neighbours? What turns urban professionals into enemies playing head games from across the street? And how do they lose sight of the fact that they'll be in close quarters and seeing each other daily, unless one caves and moves?

Peter Bruer says the Forest Hill debacle is actually a classic case. Bruer is manager of conflict resolution and training at St. Stephen's Community House, which offers free community mediation in Toronto for neighbours and other citizens. He spoke with The Globe and Mail about how such disputes heat up and what can be done across the fence, not before a judge.

Sore spots

In Forest Hill it was a perfect storm of dog doo, overzealous surveillance and litigation-happy neighbours. More common are noise disputes, be it music or a dog barking, says Bruer. Typical property spats include down spouts flooding basements, residents blocking each other's driveways with shovelled snow and a neighbour's tree dropping its leaves in the other's swimming pool. "Fences and property lines are a really common issue," says Bruer. Sometimes the fence is simply objectionable to the neighbour and sometimes the shade it casts kills her vegetable garden. Cooking smells in apartments are another irritant: "It's really just close living."

Bruer said neighbours also get into conflicts over lifestyle: Think children lobbing their basketballs into your landscaped native plant garden. "All of sudden it's really a conflict about parenting styles."

Do the math

Bruer says territorial residents often don't think through the main problem; rarely do they examine their own role in the conflict. "People don't reflect," says Bruer. "We don't have a lot of foresight as human beings."

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Many neighbours also don't do the basic research, like ascertaining the actual property line or getting acquaintated with bylaws. "There's an awful lot of stuff out there that is not illegal. You may not like it and it may not be moral or comfortable but it's not illegal to look into somebody's else yard or to accidentally let the dog walk on your sidewalk, which may actually belong to the city."

Cup of sugar

Bruer said most fighting neighbours don't bother talking to each other, relying on a third party to enforce their rights instead – bylaw enforcement officers, police, lawyers. "That's the standard way we regulate human relationships in our society," says Bruer.

"We don't have the capacity to even go next door and knock. People are afraid to do that. They want to involve a third party because they think it's safer and because people are afraid of conflict. Or maybe we never had those mechanisms: We relied on the village elder or the priest in the church. ... We've been weaned of the capacity to deal with our interpersonal conflicts because we've created this enormous state apparatus."

Mediate, don't litigate

If talking it out on the porch doesn't ease tensions, police, legal clinics and lawyers are increasingly sending battling neighbours to community mediation. Often funded by the city, these teams can save neighbours a bundle and the overwhelmed court system precious time – if the neighbours are willing to sit down. "It's a powerful process because people have to do it themselves," says Bruer. "It's not a Bandaid that somebody else puts on or the state saying, 'behave.' "

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Mediators sit down privately with each party first and then bring them together to try to clear up assumptions in a safe, neutral space. For neighbours who actually agree to mediation (many do not), St. Stephens boasts a 75-per-cent success rate with 4,000 clients to date. Sometimes, one neighbour even drives the other one home. "The point of our model is to step into the shoes of the other person," said Bruer. "We are trying to teach people to build this capacity themselves."

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