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Rubble Trouble

By Tina Traster

August 6, 2009 -- On a summer's night, a boy calls to a girl. "Juleeaa . . . Where are you, Juleeaa?"

She drops her jump-rope and scampers to the edge of the balcony. (Well, a deck actually.)

"Here I am. You know what? I went swimming today."

Ah, budding neighborly love . . . How sweet it is. Or was.

We are now at war with our neighbors over a back-yard fill project they started last summer. Their intention was to raise the grade of their yard so it would slope gently, rather than drop precipitously into the woods.

Last July, as I sat at my desk in my home office -- which has windows facing our connected back-yard woodland -- I watched dump trucks drop a mountain of concrete slabs and rocks. At first, it was only the thundering sounds of repeated thuds that jarred me. But day after day for weeks, the trucks kept excreting more fill.

By late August, a pile of rubble 40 feet tall sat aside my property line. It was an eyesore. It hovered over our land, casting a shadow. It was certainly a run-off problem waiting to happen. I was distraught. I wanted to know how in the world this much fill could reasonably be leveled off.

Our formerly congenial neighbor brushed off repeated inquiries. Apparently, he did not believe we were owed an explanation. He said he had everything under control but wouldn't elaborate. When we pushed him, he got testy.

It was starting to dawn on me he had gotten in over his head. Maybe an overzealous excavator who was building an Olympic-size swimming pool needed to unload a heap of concrete and found a willing taker. Whatever was going on, I doubted the town had given my neighbor a permit for a project that was turning into a science-fiction horror movie.

"I'm calling the town," I told my husband.

"That will start a war," he warned.

Our neighbors are a young couple with two small boys. We had decent neighborly relations since we moved into our respective old farmhouses four years ago. At the narrowest point, our houses stand less than 20 feet apart. The men have shared power tools. Our daughter Julia likes to wander over and play in the sandbox.

With our territorial feud escalating, we were becoming the Montagues and the Capulets. What would become of the children's tender affection for one another? Would the bad blood lead to unwanted consequences?

I struggled with this epic decision. To tell or not to tell, that was the question.

Alas, anger overtook me. I was worried about my property. I started with a phone call to the town environmental department, where a turtle-speed bureaucrat frustrated me with his inaction. Many calls and messages later, he told me he was handing over my complaint to the code enforcement officer.

I explained to the officer that I suspected my neighbor had brought in too much fill and that town officials thus far had been apathetic. He visited the site. I was right. He said the town would crack down and make sure my neighbor graded his mountain.

It was late autumn, and we were nearing the first frost. By December, the jagged concrete pile lay hidden under the snow. We did not see our neighbors for the next six months because only our back yards share common space.

By spring, there was no neighborly thaw. No one waved or called across the yard to say how lovely the forsythia were blooming. And when Julia ran to the edge of the deck to call to her friend, I whispered, "Come back here, we're not talking to them."

As the words left my mouth, I felt crushed. It was too difficult to explain to my 6-year-old how adults get angry over their property rights and hold grudges. In first grade, such territorial battles are quickly dissipated after the teacher calls a time out and asks each child to apologize and forgive one another.

The tower of fill was groomed into a pregnant hill by summer. It will turn green when the grass seed takes. I imagine at some point it will seem as if the land always looked that way.

One day recently, Julia was on the deck painting. I heard a high-pitched "Juleeaa, Juleeaa" from a window next door. She looked up at me with hungry eyes for permission to run to the edge of the deck. I nodded.

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