The Disappointing Neighbor

In Farm Life by Laura Crossley

I haven’t written much on the blog for a minute. Maybe I’ll back track and give you the better stories that go along with the joyful pictures of our family adventures. Maybe not. If I’m honest, it’s been an extremely hard year. Not 2023, but the whole February 2022 to February 2023.

We’re most definitely “in the thick of it” – raising two toddlers, trying to run a farm, working two full-time jobs while carting kids 45 minutes out of our way for childcare every day. We’re juggling life alongside post-partum depression recovery, other mental health struggles, trying to start a new business, trying to keep up with all our newfound responsibilities, losing beloved family members, supporting the life changes happening all across our extended family…I’m not saying others don’t face these same things – just that it feels as though it hit us all at once. It’s been seriously tough. One giant, overwhelming hurdle after another – all in a single year.

On top of it all – our property neighbor decided to throw the biggest fit over a dam that Aaron put in so that we could fix her fence and provide water to our cows. We thought we were killing two birds with one stone: 1) fixing a dilapidated fence and ravine that had proven to be a nuisance for at least 2 years, while also 2) putting in a pond that we knew we needed to simplify how we delivered water to cattle in the pasture.

As with all things, we did it as cheap as humanly possible. Amazing friends and family allowed us to borrow equipment at the cost of fuel and hauling. Aaron and they put in time to excavate and create a beautiful, professional-grade dam and land barrier that finally (and successfully!) prevented escaped livestock from moving through and damaging our land. We acquired leftover secondhand posts and materials to replace the fallen posts in the existing fence line. We did the manual labor ourselves – working to clear old wires and overgrown brush on evenings, weekends and holidays.

It seemed too good to be true that the real work we’d been in need of for at least 18 months simply appeared on a whim. And, ultimately, it was.

For years the neighboring landowner has neglected her share of the fence line and property boundary. Wildly, as soon as we took the initiative to repair it – free to her – she started her tantrum. We quit making improvements – leaving the fence line with replaced posts, but no wire. Now, there’s a less-than-impactful temporary hot wire where the new fencing was supposed to go.

You see, when the dam was built, it was put in to level out the existing fence line. Prior, the fence ran into a deep ravine – a dried-up, rocky creek bed. Because of the shape of the ravine and the lack of fence maintenance over time, it could not contain cattle to ours or neighboring properties. In fact, if you’ve been following for a while, you’ll probably recall a handful posts early in our ownership of the property in which we had an entire herd of cattle come into our pasture and roam the orchard. That wasn’t all. We had cows from neighboring land enter our pastures multiple times. One even found her way into our silvopasture with the goats. Our own donkey used the same ravine to cross into the neighboring properties. And one of the many Chucks repeatedly used it to do the same. It was beyond clear that this fence line, the ravine and the un-maintained fence would not be suitable for our or neighboring farmers’ use of the land.

At this point, we could 1) solve the problem or 2) pass the buck and pursue having our neighbor solve the problem. When a fence marks a boundary, each landowner is responsible for half of the fence. If you stand at the fence and look directly at it from your property, you pinpoint the center of the fence. From that center point, everything to the right is your responsibility to maintain. Everything to the left is the responsibility of your neighbor.

The ravine and fencing through it were and are the responsibility of our neighbor. However, at the time of the problems occurring, the neighboring property was owned by a family trust. County records reported the trust name. We attempted to contact multiple people possibly related to the trust and received acknowledgment of our messages, but no direction on who to speak with.

Suddenly, we had friends and family saying “we’re bringing equipment tomorrow! Let’s get you guys taken care of.” And honestly, it was an answered wish. We needed this pond to support a growing cattle farm. We needed the ravine fixed. We needed the fence in place. We were excited, we didn’t have clarity in a lot of ways, but we knew where the boundary was and we knew the most reasonable way for any farmer or landowner to fix the issues.

So the dam was built.

More than 9 months later, the new landowner – finally named by the trust – showed up on our doorstep. It was the day after one of the worst days of my life. I was mentally wrecked by a series of horrendous events that you’ll probably never know about. Our kids were exhausted, an emotional mess and melting down over the smallest of things. I cracked the door with a baby on my hip and a toddler clinging to my leg –  at which point, she attempted to push the door and walk into my home. I had no idea who she was.

When she realized I wasn’t letting her walk in, she said “well, can’t I come in?”

“No” – I flatly responded to a total stranger.

Agitated, she told me her name and shoved an envelope into my face. “You need to take this and respond. I don’t trust the post office.”

“Um, ok,” was all I could come up with in my drained state.

“Mmmhmmm. Mmmhmmm.” She kept agreeing with herself as if she’d gotten one up on me in some way.

Clear that nothing was going to happen while both of my kids screamed at me from the doorway, she and her husband left. I read the letter – she wanted $4,000 for “damage” and for the dam to be removed.

Are you kidding? We were trying to solve for her lack of maintenance at our own expense. We’d done everything to keep costs affordable. Pay her $4,000 for work we’d done that was her responsibility in the first place?!

I called her – providing the demanded response – and told her we didn’t have $4,000 to give her. Honestly, who does? Are we just handing out cash for funsies now? I thought it was an outlandish request and not owed – but I didn’t bother to say that or argue my point. I apologized that we seemed to have offended her, but I knew Aaron had talked with her and her husband over the phone a couple of months before and had agreed that we wouldn’t hold them accountable for the costs associated with the fence maintenance as long as we just called it all a wash. After all – we weren’t trying to claim their land, the dam and fence existed on the EXACT same property line as previously – the dam just raised the ravine to level the fence. In all cases, it was an improvement to a dried-up creek bed that was causing regular problems. They verbally agreed.

But the letter she was supplying me with months later said otherwise.

She made a lot of demands out of that letter.

When we didn’t agree or comply to what she wanted, she continued to make more demands. She continued to set arbitrary dates for our compliance with her demands. Lacking any genuine discussion or resolution, we sought the guidance of an attorney to ensure we hadn’t made some well-intentioned error.

He confirmed that the placement of the dam did cross the property line. I’ll be the first to agree that that should have been confirmed with her first. Absolutely. But we couldn’t figure out who to talk to, remember? And we jumped on a random opportunity on a nice day to fix something that we saw was broken. I am truly frustrated that we couldn’t find the information we needed at the time to do the technically right thing. However, we did something as a favor to benefit both landowners and we weren’t intending to ask for reimbursement or bother her at all – because we didn’t know who she was.

For that singular piece of the puzzle being wrong, I was frustrated and sorry. And I apologized to her profusely. But for fixing the problem, maintaining a fence that the landowner showed no effort to maintain and having minor impact to few square feet of a dry creek bed in wooded land that is in no way actively used for crop, farm, etc – I thought we handled everything in the best way we could as good neighbors. The attorney agreed and found several cases that set a precedent for these types of actions.

Once we consulted an attorney, so did she. Understandably. But her attorney contacted ours to let him know that he “knows how to run up attorney’s fees” and was really only interested in ensuring that we spent as much money as possible wasting everyone’s time. And he did exactly that. For months, we offered up a couple of reasonable, possible solutions. She and her attorney would return a list of outlandish, expensive and unrealistic options. We would respond with a realistic alternative and the pattern would continue.

We finally told our attorney we were done wasting everyone’s effort and we cut ties.

Lo and behold, her brothers show up on our doorstep once again last night – telling us she’s ready to sue, I guess. Why? It seems so wildly unnecessary. And it’s honestly heartbreaking. We’re trying so hard to get the farm up and running. Add in that we’ve lost out on nearly 2 years of cattle income because of this failing fence and her bad attitude – it all just fuels the frustration. I genuinely don’t understand how there are people out there that want nothing more than to see other good, hardworking people suffer and fail. When did the world arrive at neighbors suing each other over a few feet of land they’ve never seen, used or even bothered to observe what it is they’re suing about? It’s not functional space! It’s a dry creek. A clearing. An open, rocky space with zero purpose. It’s not rentable for crop (as the rest of that property is). It’s separated from the rentable crop and pasture land by an actual large, running creek – so it’s not interrupting any kind of water flow. It does not affect anything other than giving her something to be angry about.

And I just have to believe that that kind of person just has hate in their heart and only wants to see others struggle.

To say the whole ordeal kind of tarnished the magic of writing about the farm is an understatement. Something I’ve enjoyed so much for so long – I’ve avoided entirely because it gets too emotional. This is our home. This is where we’re raising our babies. We’ve put blood, sweat and tears into this property. Having it all poisoned by one bitter old woman’s negativity, ill will and nastiness is just cruel. Especially when you were setting out to do something out of kindness, to make the land better and to benefit everyone.

What a world.