September 2018 / Scarborough, Ontario, Canada

Love Thy Neighbor, But...

Community Mediation can help settle disputes

Don’t take down the fence or put a new one up, don’t cut down a branch or leave it alone, don’t park in the mutual driveway or on the street, don’t trim the hedge or let it grow wild. These are a few common issues neighbours face all the time. It doesn’t matter whether you live in the GTA in a quaint peaceful neighbourhood or in the busiest part of the city; there’s always a risk that you won’t get along with your neighbour.
 
Toronto is a city of 2.9 million people, conflict is inevitable. Realistically, it becomes increasingly difficult to simply ignore our neighbours entirely, particularly when Torontonians are increasingly sandwiched into smaller homes, condos and apartments with little room to breathe. 
 
In the past decade in the GTA, citizens have gone to court over nuisances such as loud music blasted throughout the neighbourhood, neighbours who allow their dogs to relieve themselves on your lawn without cleaning it up, taking up parking space on a mutual driveway, fumes from home cooking, uncut grass, overhanging tree branches or having to view at an unruly old rickety fence from a neighbours window. 
 
These common issues may seem unimportant and trivial; however, having to deal with them on a daily basis can change how you feel about your home and your community. Costs can mount quickly for homeowners looking for a solution that will make living in their own home more bearable. Many have installed surveillance cameras to monitor their neighbours; built a fence to block access to mutual driveways and fought to change laws that govern clotheslines.
 
While some of the chosen solutions to these disputes may seem to make sense the reality is that they draw upon municipal resources, eat up time in courts and can sour relations across entire neighbourhoods as conflicts develop, and sometimes spiral out of control. How do adults who are otherwise reasonable find themselves fighting the good fight and are at war over some of the most minor issues?  
 
For the most part, many disputes are settled amicably, in others, neighbours simply ignore each other, and sometimes things just go completely off the rails.
 
Here are a few solutions to consider to help with you live happily ever after. 
In each of these possible situations, you should always try to work out the problem with your neighbour first. If that fails, consider filing your complaint with Toronto 311. Be sure to record the address of your neighbour and a description of the problem. Then, call 311 and be prepared to give your name, address, and contact information. When you file a complaint, a bylaw or peace officer will likely be sent to your area to address the problem. The seriousness of the infraction will determine how quickly your complaint will be dealt with. Most neighbourhood disputes can be dealt with through good communication and City of Toronto support.
 
Another option is to enlist the help of a mediator. Mediators are neutral third parties who aim to have the parties reach a solution that’s beneficial for both sides. There’s no best-case or worst-case scenario: instead, the mediated settlement is usually “good enough” for both parties to feel they got something out of the proceedings.
 
Where can you go for mediation? This is a service offered by St. Stephen’s Community House that was started in 1985. They provide free, voluntary and confidential community mediation across the city of Toronto.  Peter Bauer, Manager; Conflict Resolution and Training at St. Stephens community house took some time to explain the services offered.
“Lets begin with the acknowledgement that conflict is a fact of life, and the challenge is to have good and appropriate conflicts, and not harmful and unnecessary ones. There are two main differences between mediation—and community mediation in particular—and other dispute resolution mechanisms or methods.
 
First, in mediation the people having the conflict decide what the resolution will be: there is no judge or arbitrator to declare what ought to happen to resolve the conflict. This is partly because, second, community mediation resolves problems where laws or rules exist, but are not enough alone to resolve things or are too hard to enforce to be worth it, and conflicts for which there are no laws or other rules, things like respect, emotional needs, value conflicts and other kinds of conflicts.”
  “Community mediation is available for any private conflict: a neighbour issue, landlord-tenant or housemate problem, family matter (but not divorce or family law), a customer or neighbour conflict with a business, conflicts with friends and any other conflict that is in a person’s private life.”
 
What can be expected? 
“After an intake phone call (or some other form of communication) with the parties involved in a conflict, community mediation sends two co-mediators to meet first in-person and in private with each party, and then to take both or all the parties though a confidential mediation session (or two) to help them resolve the issues and decide how to fix things. Our mediators are 40 or 50 carefully selected and trained volunteers (and student interns), broadly representative of the populations we serve, different ages, languages, religions, genders and other diversity.
 
  Most of the conflicts we mediate are referred to us, by the criminal courts, housing providers, by-law inspectors, the police, legal clinics and other community agencies. The most common kinds of conflicts are over noise between neighbours and tenants, fences and other property line issues, lifestyle clashes, eviction, minor criminal offences that are usually otherwise resolved (ineffectively in most cases) by a peace bond, and referrals from other courts and tribunals.”  
“St. Stephen’s has opened over 5,000 community mediation cases, in the past 30years and helped the people involved mediate successfully. ‘We believe this is a small part of what we could do, and we’re always looking for more cases.’”
“For this reason St. Stephen’s has just begun a one year pilot project with the City of Toronto by-law office (Municipal Licensing and Standards), in which by-law officers will refer appropriate complaints about fences, noise, etc. complaints to St. Stephens. This follows on the heels of a pilot just completed by the City Planning in the Committee of Adjustment, offering mediation in appropriate cases there.”
  “The expertise we get doing community mediation is part of what makes it possible for us to do professional workplace mediation, training and consulting for other community agencies, governments, institutions and private companies. The City of Toronto is not just a funder of our free community mediation service (except in Etobicoke, we provide the service without City funding for now), it’s also our biggest professional training client. We have many partnerships and professional clients for whom our community mediation service is part of the value we offer them. For example, we provide practical learning placements for dispute resolution students from York University, Osgoode Hall Law School, and George Brown and Humber Colleges.”
 
Remember that you can’t avoid neighbour disputes if you don’t communicate with them. It’s important to maintain a good relationship with your neighbour from the start. This doesn’t mean that you have to spend all your free time with them, but it’s the best way to prevent conflicts. First of all, you have to know your neighbours so that you can trust and understand them. Conflicts tend to arise much more between strangers and although making an effort with them might not be possible in all cases,  if you don’t talk to your neighbour at all or don’t make an effort to become acquainted, you increase the chances of disputes or confrontations and lessen the chances of a solution that suits everyone. If all else fails, ask for help and bring in the “Referee” to assist you both to increase the chances of a possible solution favourable to both sides. Don’t forget to show a willingness to compromise and do your best with an open minded approach even if it’s one sided to start off with. Furthermore, if you’re planning on staying and living in a happy home and neighbourhood always remember the golden rule, treat others the way you wish to be treated. If that fails, remember good fences make good neighbours but always make sure it’s to code. 
 
For further information please contact
St. Stephens Community House 
416-925-2103 x1225
91 Bellevue Avenue, 
Toronto, ON M5T 2N8
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