Bad neighbors

How do you resolve a conflict with a once-liked neighbor? (James N Arrington, Getty Images / February 14, 2012)

Mediation involves a neutral third party who sits down with both sides in a formal setting and tries to come to an agreement. Mediation can head off a dispute before it escalates, and it avoids having to go through the court system.

There are mediators and mediation groups across the country (go to

help to find one near you). One of the best known and most successful is Community Boards in San Francisco. Founded in 1976, it was the first public mediation program in the country, and it has trained 17,000 volunteers to be mediators, helped 48,000 residents resolve conflicts, and provided conflict resolution training and materials to 3,000 schools around the country.

"Mediation is nothing more than a meeting to talk about a problem," explained Jim Garrison, Community Boards' communications manager. "We use a panel process, three mediators who sit down with the disputants. Most commonly, there are two (disputants), but there can be three, it can be five against one."

The meetings usually last about three hours. Cost is about $15 (by comparison, a private mediator can run from $150 to $400 an hour). Sessions are confidential; nothing said in mediation can be used in court.

The key, Garrison said, is cooperation. If both parties don't want to mediate — and Community Boards can't help in about a third of the disputes brought to it — the two parties are sent elsewhere. The group has a long referral list.

As a last resort: Of course, diplomacy doesn't always work. There may be no reasoning with the neighbor. He may be stubborn. He may just be a jerk. Then you grab the phone.

If municipal ordinances are being broken — we repeat, does anyone really need 15 cats? — call the city. The same with possible health violations, such as the open burning of trash. Landscaping is always an issue — a neighbor's tree's roots are wrecking your sidewalk, his hedges are overrunning your property, there's a tree branch that looks like it's going to fall on your roof — contact city hall, which can send out a zoning enforcement official.

Sometimes, though, law enforcement is the best bet.

"When one party feels someone may be hurt, we want to be called," Reimers said. "If it's gotten out of control, where someone is going to pick up a shovel or strike a person, we should be called. Once physical violence occurs, it's pretty hard to repair a relationship."