The woman, who had lived in her Northern Virginia neighborhood for more than 40 years, was convinced. Somehow, sometime during the night, her neighbor had moved the fence that divided their two yards and was now encroaching on her property.
“She was sure that the fence wasn’t where it used to be,” says David Michael, who, along with his wife, had counted the woman and her recently deceased husband as “pretty good friends” during the 10 years they had lived in the neighborhood.
“She kept saying, I’ve lived in this home over 45 years — I know where things go,” Mr. Michael says.
Robert Frost’s notion that good fences make good neighbors can be sound advice — if those fences happen to be in the right place. When they aren’t, neighborly relations can sour pretty quickly.
“Property for just about everyone is closely tied up in matters of identity,” says Mr. Michael, who, fortunately in this situation, is executive director of the Northern Virginia Mediation Service. “We tend to see ourselves as islands, and the idea that this is my home and my property and you are trying to take it from me matters, even if you’re only talking about inches.”
When property is involved, the stakes can be pretty high.
Disputes over property can range from the position of a fence to the expansion of a walkway to the removal of a shared garage. And often, they have the potential to change longtime friendly neighbors into bitter enemies.
Mr. Michael was quickly able to diffuse the situation by realizing and acting upon what really was behind her charge: The overwhelming sense of dislocation she felt after the death of her husband.
“I told her if the fence was moved I had nothing to do with it,” Mr. Michael says. “I even offered to bring in a surveyor. After a while, she showed me her roses, I helped her clean up the yard, and she never raised the issue again.”
Mr. Michael used modern mediation techniques to help deal with his potentially explosive situation. But property line problems are far older, probably dating to the time when the first landholder decided to mark a boundary.
Georgetown’s Old Stone House, among the oldest remaining structures in the District, assumed its final form in the 1790s only after a dispute over a property line. Apparently, the west wall of the house had been constructed several feet beyond the boundary, and the materials resulting from the subsequent dismantling went into building an additional story.
There is also a particular street in Georgetown where the houses look like they do everywhere else, but the reality is far different.
“The survey on record says that the lots are not perpendicular to the street,” says Arthur F. Konopka, a real estate attorney in the District. “But the houses were, so every single house actually encroaches on the neighbor’s property.”
In the case of 1890s row houses, Mr. Konopka says, new homeowners are simply made aware of the situation as part of their contracts. Since the houses were built, no hackles were raised over the fact that part of one house is actually on someone else’s property.
“Nobody’s ever done anything about them,” Mr. Konopka says. “And that’s worked for more than 100 years.”