Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Chicken houses, tears and boundary issues

I was very excited when my neighbour G dropped into conversation that he was building a chicken house. Images of fresh golden yolks swirling in home-made custard danced in front of my eyes. I enthusiastically endorsed the project.

A few weeks later when I saw that he was incorporating our shared boundary fence into the back wall of the chicken house I was, to put it mildly, less enthused. I was upset. I thought I'd made it clear that I didn't want anything built too close to our boundary. I was also surprised because G has been an exemplary neighbour. We have spent quality time strolling our properties together, beer in hand, discussing our plans and dreams. He has done electrical work for me, lent me tools and machinery and been on call for bat and spider-removal services. He is always offering to lend me a hand, even though he has 27 acres, a job and a family and often needs a hand himself.  So when I saw the location of the chicken house, it felt like a betrayal of our friendship. It felt, to put it mildly, like my boundaries had been breached.

The view from my front balcony of the part of my shared fence with G where the chicken house would have been clearly visible. I've planted out the garden bed, but it will take several years for the plants to grow high enough that we can't see into each others' properties.

I stomped around the garden yanking out weeds and reflecting. Then it occurred to me that from the day I made the offer for the property I had failed to proactively manage my own boundaries. Annoyingly, I had some blame for this issue, perhaps as much as G.

Four years ago I knew as soon as I turned into the front gate that I badly wanted this house. I stood with the real estate agent while he swept his hand in the vague direction of the property boundaries and that was good enough for me. Dear reader, I'm ashamed to say that when I signed the contract I had no idea where my exact boundaries lay.

My laxness continued. The property had been empty for over a year (it was a mortgagee sale) and another farmer who was owed money by the previous owner had been grazing his cows on my bottom paddocks (via G's land, which he leases). It suited me not to have to worry about mowing those four acres and I have no water for stock, so leasing my land without putting some mental energy and work into setting it up wasn't an option.  So I let the cows continue to graze...without any formal discussion. When the fence needed repairs and when he made improvements, I let G do the work...with thanks, but without any formal discussion.

In my own defense, my property-owning experience before the country house has been with apartments where boundaries are very well defined and managed by a body corporate. I had never given property boundaries much thought. And I was overwhelmed with getting my mind around all of the other things that owning a run-down house on six weed-filled acres entails.

I gathered my courage and I went next door to talk to G. I told him that I realised that I had not taken my share of responsibility for our shared boundary fence and I apologised. I told him that a chicken shed so close to our shared boundary was not OK with me and I asked for a meeting to discuss it. It was a hard conversation for me to initiate and when he kindly pointed out that he recognised this, goddamn, I couldn't help but squeeze out a couple of tears. So annoying.

The next weekend when I arrived at the house, the chicken shed had been dismantled. I walked my whole boundary line to check the condition of the fences. I called the local council and the local community law centre to find out more about my responsibilities. The next time I saw G it was a little uncomfortable but we laughed it off. Then we had a conversation about the work that needs to be done on the fences. I took accountability for my half. It felt good.

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