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2018-07-18 / Outdoor Life

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

By Ryan Trapani


Anthony Morgano/The Reporter The New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) unveiled a new boot brush station on Friday, July 13 at the Shavertown Trail near the Pepacton Reservoir. Wendell George, director of the Catskill Mountain Club, Michael Vanderwerff, Downsville regional manager for DEP, John Thompson, coordinator for the Catskill Regional Invasive Species Partnership (CRISP), Meredith Taylor, DEP invasive species biologist and Tom Davidock, recreation supervisor at DEP lined up to cut the ribbon after a brief speech about steps outdoorsmen can take to slow the spread of invasive species in New York state, as a way to conserve the ecosystem. Anthony Morgano/The Reporter The New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) unveiled a new boot brush station on Friday, July 13 at the Shavertown Trail near the Pepacton Reservoir. Wendell George, director of the Catskill Mountain Club, Michael Vanderwerff, Downsville regional manager for DEP, John Thompson, coordinator for the Catskill Regional Invasive Species Partnership (CRISP), Meredith Taylor, DEP invasive species biologist and Tom Davidock, recreation supervisor at DEP lined up to cut the ribbon after a brief speech about steps outdoorsmen can take to slow the spread of invasive species in New York state, as a way to conserve the ecosystem. Writer Robert Frost quotes his neighbor in his poem “Mending Wall” (1914) as saying “Good fences make good neighbors.” I’m not sure Robert Frost was happy about his obligation to maintain his shared wall with his neighbor, but still I tend to agree with the neighbor’s sentiment. I too wish walls or property lines weren’t necessary, but through experience have seen the pragmaticism in them.

For instance, one author I read described the usefulness of stonewalls and barbed wire in making American agriculture more efficient than its competitors. Barbed wire was cheaper than laying stone, and certainly cheaper and less resource dependent than older walls created during the settlement era with wood (split-rail). Barbed wire wasn’t just about marking property boundaries, but instead about making pasture sustainable. Before these “good fences” were created, a farmer’s hard-earned pasture could be chowed down by his neighbor’s loose herd, or vice-versa. In other words, barbed wire incentivized farmers to maintain their own pastures to feed their own cows, and thus reduced over-grazing.

Another example: When my wife lived in Senegal, Africa for the Peace Corps. Needless to say, there were fewer fences to keep in livestock where she lived. After weeks of preparing her garden, a loose cow stampeded her garden and reduced it to roadkill; That was the last time she invested in a garden. The bottom line is that this saying implies that “good neighbors respect each other’s property.” This can be challenging for many of us. I know I too have had to rethink my behavior after reflecting on my neighbor’s side of the fence.

What About Living Fences?

Besides inanimate fences are “living fences” too, that can complicate the previously mentioned proverb. In the absence of magical fairies, stonewalls normally don’t grow without deliberate human hands. However, trees do. For those with larger properties and more spread between houses, this might not be an issue. However, on lots with houses nearby, tree issues literally grow each year. Regardless of boundaries, problems in planting trees normally include: (1) trees too close to each other; (2) trees planted too close to structures; (3) inadequate space for future size of tree. This type of planting error is compounded when the nearby structure is our neighbor’s house, shed, or parked car. Although these plantings are normally well-intentioned since their goal is to enhance privacy or shade one’s home, tree growth continues year after year. Eventually what was once a 3-foot Norway spruce tree is now a $3,000 take-down looming over your neighbor’s home that nobody wants to claim responsibility for. After all, the last guy planted it, right? Even more complicated is that trees are regulated differently in each town. Some might claim that although your neighbor’s tree breaches the line, you cannot prune it back to the line. Others may be stricter and the tree might fall under the jurisdiction of a town Tree Board that decides its care or fate.

Your neighbor’s over-sized and gangly tree may not only threaten your house, but also your own trees too. For instance, perhaps you planted some fruit trees that will max out at 10 feet or so. On the other side of the line are Norway spruce trees which will become 100 feet and over time shade out about 500 square feet where your fruit trees are planted. Since fruit trees are intolerant of shade, they will bend towards the light and deform themselves while also being more susceptible to insects and disease. You can also forget about having a vegetable garden on that side of the house.

The point here isn’t to foster more regulations about planting trees, but instead to think about what a tree looks like when it’s mature and whether it still meets your goal. Many people I talk to would have never planted that Norway spruce or white pine tree directly next to their house if they knew each year it would be growing not only needles, but liability. Although planting that maple tree might be far enough from your house when it’s mature, will it be a liability for your neighbor in the future, or perhaps preclude them from planting trees they want? If you want privacy or shade, plant the right tree in the right spot, or one whose height won’t eventually grow into the power line, over a house or your neighbor’s house.

So, while it might be true that “good fences make good neighbors,” living fences should be carefully selected or maintained. I have experienced too many neighbor disputes already involving trees, arborists, expert-witnesses and lawyers.

Ryan Tripani is the Director of Forest Services at Catskill Forest Association; www.catskillforest.org

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