Friday, October 28, 2011

Land Saga Continues in New Jersey

This is my personal problem and it has to do with the neighbors. If you have ever had problems with your neighbors, I feel sorry for you, too. Please read on...

When we moved into our house, we were told that one of our neighbors, for some reason known only to himself, was mowing maybe two feet over the boundary line into our property. The previous owners had been unable to stop the neighbor from mowing, and were simply disclosing the problem to us when we moved in. It did not stop us from buying the property back in the winter of 1995-6.

What happened was that new neighbors moved into that property, and walked around  the land on our more spacious property with a much bigger house one day soon after they moved in. They walked over to our house, and asked to see inside, which I thought rather presumptuous.  Their house is over one-quarter mile away, and his is in a development of newer homes, while ours is a farm. Normally, we don't talk to the neighbors, or meet them when they are new. It simply isn't part of the neighborly custom; they meet neighbors in the development.

I asked the party of three to come back later in the day, because I happened to be busy with something else, honestly; I had a four year old then, and had moved in a few years before. I must have given him a look, because he told me I had "an attitude." I showed them around when they returned, but decided I didn't really like them. They were very pushy, and offered me nothing in return.

This new neighbor began to clear out significantly more brush behind his property. Here are photos of the area he cleared:

Wild brush and trees went all around our property in a fifteen-foot swath in an agreement made between the previous owner of hour house and the developer of the houses in the land next to us, and was not his to clear. In fact, behind his house, the developer had cleared the fifteen-foot swath by mistake, and the neighbor was clearing brush from our land!

When I went over to put a no-trespassing sign at the boundary with  our gardener, the neighbor said that he wanted to clear out the land for himself, so that when he had parties, he could tell his guests the land was his.  On the far side of the common land next to his house, maintained by the Homeowner's Association, he installed pine trees and an invisible fence so his dog could have a larger lot to roam. He warned me that any sign  or fence  on our property we put up, he would remove, despite the fact such an act would be illegal.

In protest, he pulled out the "no trespassing" signs as we stood there, wadded up his mouth into a big spit, and spat at me! My gardener and I ran to wash my face quickly. I vowed never to return to speak to him again.

My husband would have nothing to do with this drama. He thought it was all right for the neighbor to take care of that corner of the property, although I disagreed.

Fast forward thirteen years: I know he has been mowing on our property,  to my anger, continuously. I wanted to overlook it, and not cause any bad feelings, but the problem was grating on my nerves. The Homeowners Association wanted me to take a position on the issue, to show others they could not encroach on my property, and incidentally showed me what he had done.

The amount of land he was having mowed each week had gradually increased to a size of  land about 120 feet by 70 feet. In addition, he had planted about twenty trees, mulched around them, added plastic edging, lawn ornaments, landscape blocks, benches and birdcages. It looked rather nice, and would have been if the land had been his, except, of course, the land was not his. It was ours.

As it happened, I became a licensed New Jersey real estate agent. During the classes where I learned the principles and practices of real estate in New Jersey, I discovered that he might gain legal possession of the property if he maintained it, after twenty years, even though he had not purchased it. His transgression was open and notorious; everyone in the area of his development knew about it.

Since I wanted him to stop the other neighbors in the development from trespassing  from possibly trespassing, and especially this known case, and take back land that was ours by law, I finally  decided, reluctantly, to call the police. The police told me they would not  enter into neighbor disputes in our Township. Indeed, a rookie police officer they dispatched said it would only cause bad feelings if he talked to the neighbor, and we should not do anything. I don't think his visit to me was recorded at the police station, and nothing came of it. 

At some point, this same neighbor stopped by when I was out on an errand, and left a card that called him a Chief Liquidator of properties, probably foreclosed properties. He is tall and dominating in stature, although I forget his face.

Six months later, on the advice of a former attorney, I wrote a letter asking him to stop mowing my land, but did not send it. I didn't want to provoke him.

Six months later, I called the police to ask an officer to take another look and try to help me solve the problem, to again try to stop him from mowing and pushing and pushing further into my land, possibly with the view of squatting on it with a building.

The Homeowner's Association had just asked me to do something about that corner, and explained that all I had to do was threaten to sue him. They had done so since he planted the trees, and had removed him, and "ousted him as chairman" from an official position on the Association.

I called the Manager of the Town, and in his absence, his assistant sent a second police officer. At the scene, the officer admitted what the neighbor had done was wrong, a crime even, referred me to "Engineering" in the Municipal Building and didn't follow up.

Did so, and was told they don't handle "neighbor problems" and couldn't help me. In fact, the clerk said they hadn't dealt with a problem of a neighbor encroaching in all the thirty years she had worked in the municipal office. My problem suddenly sounded unique and rare.

When I called the police for the third time, I hoped to brainstorm and ask if they had any idea of what to do about the neighbor to stop him trespassing. They told me the written survey meant nothing; the only thing that mattered were the stakes in the ground. They told me to get new ones, and that the "Engineering" Department  in the Township building would replace them from the survey for free (since we pay seven thousand quarterly for taxes, I tried and didn't feel guilty. Except, of course, they wouldn't do it).

I had to call the original Surveyors of our property, whom I had been trying to call  off and on for years. They had always been busy, or said they wouldn't help with neighbor disputes, and I had been calling them over an eight year period. The "Engineering" Department at the Municipal Building encouraged me to try them, and they actually came out when I said the magic words, that the police needed to see the stakes before they would talk to the homeowner.

 The survey is still good and legal, and the Surveyor told me the neighbor knew he was trespassing. It wasn't news to the neighbor when the Surveyor pointed out the boundaries and staked them.When we moved into the farm, the land had been subdivided, but not surveyed. I remember how the surveyors were here three days surveying the property, and we didn't even notice them until they had been working for fifteen hours.

I called a real estate attorney I had met, and he crafted a letter to the neighbor, identified my property, and asked him to cease trespassing and using the property, and specified the extent of the area concerned, and warned him to stop, and said we would bring legal action if he should continue, and sent it by certified mail.

A few days later, the wood stakes had been removed, and the boundary was hidden and difficult to find. The neighbor, or his gardeners, had a history of covering the marker stakes in his back yard going back to when he moved in.

I called the Surveyor, and the Surveyor replaced the stakes and spoke to the neighbor. It is a misdemeanor in every state in the United States to remove iron stakes, but it is not one to remove the wood stakes with pink ribbons on top of the iron markers. The Surveyor said that the neighbor told him the Homeowner's Association had removed the marker.

Meanwhile, I had a couple of estimates for a new fence to be installed. The fence maker recommended that I get a restraining order, but that turned out not to be possible, since the neighbor did not have a prior marital or dating relationship with me ( far from it!!!)...Pity the Hollywood stars who have to get restraining orders. Poor authors and mathematicians like us, even a world-class one like my husband, don't rate restraining order protection.

Meanwhile, the neighbor wrote in a letter from himself to my lawyer that he did not have any claim to the property, and admitted he had been mowing "a section" of the property since he moved into the property. He said the former owner had mowed it and led him to believe it was part of the property!

Yet the Surveyor indicated to me he knew the boundaries of the property. He always had, in my view, but chose to ignore them. He increased the area mowed from about two feet to seventy feet during his tenure in the house.

He also said the letter he did not believe there was any harm in mowing the rear of the property (despite my request to stop cutting it?) and that he wanted to make it straight and parallel. This is clearly laughable, as a quick glance at the survey proves. 

He claimed that his family had problems with "deer ticks and foxes" -- that "Everyone in our family has had a case or two of lymes, and one of our dogs developed Mange, which took about a year to resolve." This is irrelevant and immaterial information. I don't know why had said it, except to elicit sympathy.

He said that because of these illnesses, he and his wife decided "the best plan of action was to clear 'a little' (?) further back"...right, like sixty-eight feet??? is a little...because of the illnesses? So I would just have to understand, of course, why he disregarded my request not to trespass.

The upshot of this was that the lawyer told me to put up a fence at our expense, and to have the area continue to be mowed. We cannot, however, access this area with lawn mowers since there is prickly brush land between us. If the lawyer had seen  the land he would have known this. The Surveyor sympathized with me when I mentioned it to him, since we would have to put up a fence and do this mowing as our expense.

Yesterday, I went to the Township's Municipal Building to ask for a restraining order against the neighbor, and filled complaint forms against the neighbor, and against his wife, since neither of them had any idea who had removed the wood stakes from the backyard, and blamed it on their gardeners, or the Homeowners Association to the Surveyor. An incident statute was decided on. I swore the accusation was the truth, and we'll see whether the judge finds  "probable cause" or whether she finds it frivolous. Since my neighbor could use the land next to his house to construct a driveway and build a house for his children on the 120 by 70 foot extra lot, it wouldn't seem right for the judge to allow this, but then I have little faith in the American legal system personally.

That's the status of the problem now. I don't know what will happen next, but it feels good to finally air it out here.

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