Bob Benzel had seen enough.
For months, he looked across the street from his Gifford Park home and saw a rental property that looked like a giant overgrown weed patch.
He snooped a little, discovered where the property owner lived and knocked on his door one day.
This did not go well. An unpleasant exchange of words followed, leading Benzel to consult a higher power. “I went to talk to his parish priest,” he said.
As sure as the arrival of spring, lawns will green and grass will grow. When to mow, how to mow, when to water, whether to water — the discussion of proper yard etiquette is sensitive, with varying opinions on what constitutes best practices.
But what do you do when your neighbor chooses no practice at all?
Homeowners, real estate salespeople and conflict experts agree: It's a frustrating situation, often with no perfect solution. Some strategies are worth pursuing — and others are probably best forgotten.
Take Monte Thompson. Each spring at her home near 60th and L Streets, Thompson creates an outdoor garden refuge of flowers and vegetables. Her neighbor does not.
He mows “maybe once a year,” she said. A pickup truck “loaded with junk” sits in his backyard.
Thompson came up with a solution so she didn't have to look at it.
“You just build a blindfold on your end,” she said.
Thompson built a fence between her property and her neighbor's. This season she'll plant a vine of wild plums to create a second, “softer” buffer. The vine will grow as high as 10 feet, she said, with light pink blossoms giving off a pleasant fragrance.
“I don't mind doing it because I would rather see beauty on my side,” she said.
For Kara Cavel, turning the other cheek isn't so easy. She doesn't have time right now to create an outdoor sanctuary at her midtown home, though she would like to someday. When garden plots she inherited from the previous owner overgrew with weeds, she pulled them out and replaced them with grass. She's landscaped part of her yard with river rock, which looks nice without requiring much upkeep.
Unfortunately, the residents of one neighboring property haven't been much for yardwork. Last summer wasn't bad, Cavel said, because the high temperatures kept their yard from getting out of control.
The year before was another story.
“I'm a short person, but the grass was probably to my knees,” she said. “It was a miniature jungle next to my house. I could imagine little people swinging through it. It was insane.”
Eventually, she said, another neighbor called the city to complain. According to a representative at the Mayor's Hotline, in some cases the city will send property owners a letter urging them to clean up their yards. If they fail to do so, the city could send workers to take care of the mess and bill the property owners.
Whether it was a response to the city or not, Cavel saw her neighbor in his yard for the first time.
“I think he was probably mowing his lawn for six hours,” she said. “He would stop and something would happen with the mower. It took forever, but it finally happened.”
The problem intensifies when you're trying to sell your home.
Tim Reeder, a Realtor with NP Dodge, has known homeowners to take various measures to get a neighboring property cleaned up.
One seller, he said, went so far as to fake letters from the city demanding action, a tactic Reeder does not recommend. Instead, he advises sellers to approach their neighbors with an offer to help.
“I've had one client that I've worked with multiple times,” Reeder said. “Every time he goes to put his house up for sale, he'll go to his neighbors and clean up their yards.”
He notes that it's easy to assume laziness is the cause for inactivity when there might be a legitimate excuse.
Bryan Hanson, assistant director at the Werner Institute for Negotiation and Dispute Resolution at Creighton University, agrees.
“It's easy to personalize it, too, but understand that's your perspective,” he said. “You won't be able to overcome that perspective until you have a conversation.”
As a community mediator early in his career, Hanson witnessed how seemingly minor disagreements between neighbors can spiral out of control. Complaints can turn into threats, and threats into vandalism or even violence. He also cautions against making legal claims, which can end up costing both parties thousands of dollars.
“That can really set up barriers and cause you more trouble in the long run,” he said.
In Omaha, Hanson points to the Concord Mediation Center as a resource many residents might not know about. Community mediation remains relatively unknown in Nebraska, he said, but it's an option more effectively employed elsewhere in the country.
“If you can feel confident engaging in conversation with your neighbor, you're probably going to be able to resolve it a lot quicker,” he said.
Back in Gifford Park, Bob Benzel tried it all. He set a good example by keeping a well-manicured property, and he saw his neighbors make an effort to do the same.
When the guy across the street didn't follow suit, he tried to engage in a conversation to resolve the matter. And when that didn't work, he sought a different form of mediation.
“Omaha is a very, very, very small town,” Benzel said. “And everyone is parochial.”
It turned out there were just three degrees of separation between Benzel and the man's priest, who agreed to make a call to his parishioner.
“It definitely didn't help,” Benzel said. “But he was a very nice priest.”
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