RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: Next-door Neighbor/Real Estate Disputes - 12/28/2018
What laws impact a library’s next-door-neighbor relationships?  Are there best practice...
Posted: Friday, December 28, 2018 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

What laws impact a library’s next-door-neighbor relationships?  Are there best practices for neighbor disputes? 

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

There are few relationships that can be as rewarding—and as fraught with tension—as the relationship between neighbors.  I have seen neighbors unite to fight for preservation of their streets historic assets, and I have seen neighbors bring law suits over shrubbery.  A library is wise to cultivate a good relationship with its neighbors, just like a person would at their own home.

What laws impact a library’s relationship with its neighbors?  Most libraries exist on land[1], or within a building, so the controlling law is called “real property” law.  “Real property,” which could be land, or a building, is distinct from “personal property” (like a book) or “intellectual property” (like a logo).  Although many laws impact real property, in New York, the major one would be the “Real Property Actions & Proceedings Law” or “RPAPL.”

Also impacting real property and the relationships between neighbors are: building codes, planning regulations, zoning, permitting, contract, business, and construction-related law.  And of course, the education law, not-for-profit corporation law, and municipal law can all apply to how a library handles real property issues, while grant terms and donor restrictions can be relevant, too. 

And if the old oak in front of your library suddenly crashes into the roof of your neighbor, insurance law may come into play, as well.

Any one of these laws—and countless others—might be considered by a lawyer advising a library if there is a concern or dispute with a nearby neighbor.  But are there any general “best practices” to abide by?  Based on my experience with construction, real property, landlord-tenant, and contracts—here are some simple practices for preventing, and if necessary, addressing potential neighbor disputes.

Practice #1: Know where you stand

Every library should know precisely what property they occupy, and how they occupy it.  To do this, I recommend what I call a “binder solution.” 

For libraries that own their own property, the binder contains:

  • Deed
  • Survey
  • Assessment information (even if the building is off the tax rolls)
  • Mortgage (if you have one)
  • Any recorded easements or rights-of-way
  • Current and past insurance summaries and policies
  • Permits (if any)
  • All contracts and documents related to maintenance
  • Fixture and structure warrantees (driveway warranty, roof warranty, etc.)
  • Deferred maintenance plan

Basically, this binder should be a one-stop shop for information relating to the library’s property and the legal relationships it has with the world. 

For libraries that do not own their premises, the binder contains:

  • Lease
  • Survey or floorplan of library’s portion of building
  • Current insurance summary or policy
  • Permits (if any)
  • Warrantees for on-site physical assets your library paid for/owns (copier warranty computer system warranty, etc.)
  • All occupancy-related correspondence with landlord, including notice of defects or safety hazards

Why does all this matter?  Many real property battles are lost when owners over-state or mis-portray their rights.  Never initiate a property matter with a neighbor—even a seemingly simple one like a noise complaint—unless you know these documents will back you up (plus, having this material organized is just good stewardship).

Practice #2: Know your neighbor

This advice works on two levels.

The first level is obvious: know your neighbors.  Invite them over.  Know the names of their kids and what sports team they root for.  That type of outreach is insurance against any number of serious disputes.

The second level is a bit more covert: what’s in their “binder”?  Are they the owner?   Are they renting?  Might they be a squatter?  Basically, to the extent possible, develop a “binder solution” for them, too.  In getting to know them a bit better, you might develop some insights on the roots of your dispute.

Practice #3: Isolate this issue

In my experience, neighbor disputes can be some of the nastiest legal battles. I am no sociologist, but I imagine this is because when you fight with a neighbor, no one gets a break.  You are alongside and--in some places practically on top of—each other, 24/7.    And sometimes people are just mean…or have too many of their own problems to be able to honor another’s.

That said, if you have a potential neighbor dispute, isolate what you think the true cause might be.  Is the neighbor ranting about your ice cream social signage actually angry about fines from 1989?  Is the neighbor complaining about “those people parking” actually kind of racist? Is the dispute really about noise, or is the neighbor a narcotics peddler?

The point of this is: make sure you really know what’s up.  That way, you can keep things professional and separate if matters get contentious, and know what type of team to assemble to handle the dispute.

Which brings us to…

Practice #4: Use a professional!

Library staff are trained to help people find information, to select and categorize library acquisitions, and to operate their library according to applicable ethics and regulations.  They are NOT trained lawyers, surveyors, law enforcement, or alternative dispute mediators.

If your library is in the midst of a neighbor dispute, consider retaining a property manager, lawyer, real estate agent, or other paid expert to be the primary interface with the neighbor.  Their experience will bring a better result, and the distance they lend the situation may de-personalize it and save your library staff time and stress.

Practice #5: Pick your battles!

Neighbor disputes should only be entered into if they can be won decisively, quickly, and in a way that aligns with your mission.  For a community library, that means identifying an overall strategy before you start, and using only tactics that you can publicly defend.

It would be impossible to write an essay on this (although a book might be fun), but here is a chart of some typical scenarios, and how to pick your battles:

Your Library

Your Neighbor

The Dispute

The Law

Fight the Battle?

Owns its property, and just put a new skylight in.

 

Is a long-term renter. 

With the new skylight in, the ska music they have been blasting since 1987 can now be heard in the periodical section.

Could be in violation of a noise ordinance.

Could be a violation of their lease. 

Best to first gently and informally raise the issue with their landlord; if you’re in a small town, make sure you know all the players.  This could be a diplomatic (and loud) nightmare.

 

 

Rents its property, and has had the same lease since 1996.

 

Owns their property across the street.

 

 

After getting all the proper permits, your neighbor excavated for a new building and hit a natural spring, causing flooding in your basement and ruining a significant array books.

 

So much!  This would call for an immediate and very well-organized response.  But even before you call your lawyer, call your landlord and your insurance carrier.

 

You’d have to pick which battle.  Moving to a new location might be more mission-aligned than staying in a potentially damaged and moldy structure.

 

Is a public library that has occupied the second floor of the Town Hall 1934, but there’s no lease and no one has really questioned the arrangement.

 

Is the Town Historical Society, who have been in the basement of the Town Hall since 1974.

 

The Historical Society has, without asking, recently taken over your community reading room with a display case of genealogical charts. The room was recently redecorated with a grant that requires the room be accessible to all.

 

 

The only entity with clear rights here might be

the donor!

 

Ugh.  This is the type of battle that can get ugly, quickly.  Hopefully after you assess your position with a professinoal, some diplomacy and living up to any contractual obligations can save the day.

 

Is buying a historic property[2] to rehab and move into.

 

 

Owns the house next door.

 

In surveying the property, you find out that 5 years ago, your neighbor built their fence over two feet onto your new land.

 

This could involve looking at the survey, searching for easements (permission to use your property), and making an inquiry of the person you bought the property from.

 

You have to address it, since leaving the fence there without protest could result in the property eventually becoming the neighbor’s!  But be strategic and consult an attorney before you raise it externally (including with the neighbor).

My overall guidance?  Send neighbors a basket of fresh fruit ever year, and when you hand-deliver it, spend 10 minutes catching up and asking about their families.  It’s amazing how much ill will can dissolve over apples and pears.

Good luck out there!

 


[1] Inspired by this sentence, I checked: yes, as I am sure my readers are aware, there are libraries boats and library planes, too.

[2] I love historic properties and historic preservation.  That said, if you plan to do this, make sure your team has at least one person who has done a major preservation project before.  Those buildings are full of expensive surprises.

Tags: , Management, Property, Templates

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