Good Bylaws Make Good Neighbours – Or do They?

Summer is when Canadians come out of winter hibernation and enjoy the warm weather. Especially in urban areas, people see their neighbours a lot more. Kids are out riding bikes or playing on the streets and adults are out mowing their lawn or barbecuing on the deck. But does this equate to a sense of neighbourliness? Can people, especially in crowded urban centres, really get along with each other? Could they just pop next door to ask for “a cup of sugar” or trust someone to look after their house while they are on vacation? Or is it more that, these days, we just come home from work, shut the garage door and retreat inside to our own little kingdom without getting to know the people on the other side of the fence?

We would all like to think that a sense of neighbourliness still exists, especially in Canada?because we are friendly Canadians, eh. People tend to have an ideal view of neighbourhoods?and neighbours?that nostalgically harken back to when close-knit communities were the norm, not the exception. After all, an innate part of our humanity is connection with others and to be social. Shouldn’t neighbourliness come naturally? More and more, the answer seems to be “no.” Even in small towns, there appears to be a prevailing element of mistrust about others and a spirit of conformity and toeing the line. Neighbourliness is enforced not by a societal ideal but by a formal code of conduct that residents must adhere to?or else face fines and other punishments. These “Good Neighbour Guides” or “Good Neighbour Bylaws” are becoming the norm, not the exception, and not just in Canada but also in the United States and other countries.

On the surface, these bylaws look like they are a good idea. They are designed to prevent neighbours from irritating each other through unwelcome behaviors like blasting music through the night or letting unlicensed dogs and cats run free. These laws are often created with health and safety in mind. After all, people don’t want to fall on icy sidewalks because someone doesn’t want to shovel them, or have smoke from backyard fire pits wafting through their windows.

Good neighbour bylaws come with enforcement by municipal officers; often brought by a tip-off from a neighbor who has complained. After a complaint is made, residents receive an infraction notice and are given a period of time to rectify the problem. If the issue isn’t addressed, then the result is most often a fine, but can also lead to formal mediation or even a court summons.

The main argument for the necessity of Good Neighbour laws is that they act as a framework of clear guidelines to resolve disputes between property owners. But there are problems with this. The biggest one is that a small proportion of people have no interest in conforming to municipal laws. They believe it is their right to do whatever they want, and they don’t care about what anyone else thinks, and no amount of enforcement threats will change that mindset. This is more common than people think, judging from the popularity of online forums such as Neighbours From Hell and http://www.annoyingneighbors.com/. The people who just aren’t interested in conforming to laws and/or reforming their behavior become a huge problem for others around them who do.

There are also unintended consequences for Good Neighbour laws. What often happens is that municipalities start out with just a basic set of rules and regulations, but tend to add more and more bylaws, to the point where many people just don’t know what they really are and become increasingly petty. Take Calgary for example. Here are just a few of the bylaws contained in the Good Neighbour Guide, which is 47 pages long. Some of the contents are mere suggestions, but other points contained in the guide are enforceable laws. Some examples: water is not allowed to run down the street or sidewalk when watering your lawn, snow or ice removed from private property must not be thrown on the public road or boulevard, recreational vehicles must not be parked outside of a house for more than 24 hours, and grass and weeds outside residences should not be more than 15 centimetres high. There are even more rules found on the City of Calgary website. Can any resident really know and abide by all the city bylaws? And Calgary is by no means a rare example of municipalities being all too keen on creating and enforcing these laws. But sometimes, the only time people are aware of them is when an enforcement officer visits their property.

There is growing evidence that the proliferation of these “Good Neighbour Laws” have the opposite effect of creating a sense of neighbourliness. Instead, they make people more mistrustful of each other and the place they live. What law experts are seeing is that bylaws can be an excuse to make complaints against neighbours or punish a disliked neighbour. There has been a sharp increase in legal disputes arising from complaints by one neighbour toward another when the evidence is sketchy or even unprovable.

One Calgary resident, who wishes her name not to be used, experienced this first-hand. After the relationship with her next-door neighbour turned sour (she does not know why, especially when he works out of town for much of the year), he began making complaints about her family. He called bylaw services over twenty times for a myriad of complaints that resulted in police and bylaw offers making over a dozen visits to her home. The complaints ranged from “tip offs” about an illegal basement suite (which they don’t have, as their basement is unfinished) to putting landscaping rock on his side of his property boundary (the rock turned out to be on his side of his unfenced side-yard by an inch), and complaining that her dog ran through the neighbourhood unleashed. He took five photos of the dog right behind her fence in a public green patch which the dog used to go to the bathroom on, but then came straight inside the house. Because of the photos, bylaw could have fined her $500 but instead “only” fined them $100. She made a counter-complaint about the constant harassment, but did not receive any word on whether her complaint was upheld. Needless to say, the two neighbours are no longer on speaking terms.

So does neighbourliness mean that municipalities have increasing say over residents lives? That in appearing to create a sense of harmony, the laws are instead creating disharmony? This is something that the Canadian Constitution Foundation (https://theccf.ca) is examining. It is finding that these bylaws don’t solve communication problems, they create them. Rather than encouraging residents to talk over any disputes with each other, they just give people an easy out and an escape route versus letting neighbours talk things though and come to an understanding. People shouldn’t have to take a tape measure to their lawns to measure the foliage or gauge the decibels of their guests? chatter at summer gatherings to remain on the right side of their neighbours and the law. Good Neighbour Bylaws are creating an entire industry in our towns and cities as call centre staff and officers are hired to investigate complaints and enforce the bylaws. The amount of money, often taxpayer funded, that neighbour disputes cost in legal fees is not calculated but is thought to be increasing at an exponential level.

So where does it all end? The truth is, no one knows. But there is an antidote to all the pettiness between neighbours: just taking the time to get to know each other and getting back to those social skills that seem to be missing from modern interactions. This is just as true of suburban neighbours as it is for people who live in urban high-rise condominiums. If we really have a sense of wistful nostalgia about neighbourliness, we can try to recapture that and create a new sense of what being a good neighbour is all about.

In Calgary, home to so many bylaws, there is a new municipal day designed to do just that. The third Saturday in June has been designated as Neighbour Day. It was created to commemorate the 2013 flood that hit Calgary hard but brought out the best in people, as they rallied around each other in crisis. Neighbour Day encourages Calgarians to throw block parties, picnics, and backyard barbecues to get to know their neighbours better. Neighbour Day has been picking up momentum since its inception four years ago, but only time will tell whether the spirit of Neighbour Day has a lasting effect.

The challenge for any of us, then, during the summer of Canada’s sesquicentennial, is to take the time to get to know our neighbours. Who knows, they might even invite you over to their backyard barbecue or join in with a pick-up game of street hockey.

Carla is an AU student who lives and writes in Calgary, Alberta. Say “hi” to her on Twitter @LunchBuster.

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