I immediately called. The fellow’s name was Pewter Mugg, and though I didn’t know him well, we had recently met to discuss sharing infrastructure costs for our two projects.
“Pewter,” I said, “Stan Taughl just phoned and said you’re doing some clearing, which is fine, but he thought your excavator operator may have torn up some old fence on the boundary. Anything to it?”
“Uh, yeah… yeah, that could be,” he stammered, as if he half expected the question but hoped it wouldn’t be asked. “But you know how it is, Tim,” he continued, “the fence was so overgrown with berry vines, the operator couldn’t see it until it was too late. He nipped it in a couple of places. Real sorry.”
“Hmmm,” I grumbled, “Did he just nip it, or did he rip it?”
“Yeah, well, he did do some damage to a few sections.”
“Okay…,” I replied, hesitating. I knew any decent operator would have little trouble avoiding a fence after he’d hit it once and could see its direction. I continued, “Stan also said he saw new survey stakes on his side of the fence. Have your surveyors found some sort of discrepancy?”
“Um, yes… well, my surveyors tell me there is a minor discrepancy in several old records, so they made their best estimate at where the line should be, and darned if it didn’t wind up 10 feet on Stan’s side. But I looked at the fence myself and there are metal posts in it, which tell me it’s fairly new and not reliable for historic boundary purposes. You know, Tim, I tried several times to call Stan, but he never called back.”
Now the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I’ve known Stan for years and know him to be as reliable as a rooster bugling at daybreak; he always calls back. I also happen to know the fence was at least 50 years old, as old as Stan’s family had owned the property. It was true there were newish metal posts, but only because Stan had used them to repair the original wood fence. There was little doubt the fence would play a key role if a dispute went to court. A foul odor was emanating from this conversation.
“Okay…,” I replied. “Well, Pewter, I’ll pass that along to Stan. You know, it looks like this boundary issue could be headed toward a quarrel, which is the last thing anyone wants. I know I’m speaking for Stan when I say we want to be good neighbors. How about we meet at my office next week: you, your surveyor, Stan and myself. I’m sure if we lay everything on the table, a sensible solution will come of it.
“Yeah, sure. Good idea,” he said with a measure of relief, like a guilty schoolboy who had just narrowly avoided the rod. “I don’t want a tussle with Stan, or you, or anyone else. I’m just trying to turn a buck.”
So I set up the meeting, and it went marvelously. It turns out, after more research, the surveyors determined that the old fence was indeed the proper boundary, and they were able to relocate it. Pewter actually seemed just as relieved as we were; he truly did not want a hassle. It always amazes me how sensible people, when sitting face to face, are so much nicer and more willing to cooperate than when dealing through intermediaries, or on the phone, or in writing.
So the two morals of this story are:
- First, don’t ever tear out or alter a fence near a property line unless both parties agree beforehand.
- Second (and I think more important), do whatever it takes to make personal contact in any potentially contentious matter. “He didn’t return my phone call” or “I’ve been really busy” are feeble excuses just begging for trouble.
Tim K. Garrison P.E. of ConstructionCalc.com has authored books and short courses and lectures on topics relevant to builders. Got a technical or management issue? E-mail email@example.com. Tim reads every one.
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