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October 2017 Issue [Forum]

Rensselaer County, New York

The latest issue that has come before our village board is whether to add an animal-control regulation to the village laws. A member of the public has come to one of our monthly meetings, handed each of the board members a letter describing his problem, and at the same time explained it to us.

His next-door neighbors’ dog habitually crosses the property line into his yard, barking, threatening him, chasing his chickens, if they are out, and frightening his grandchildren, if they are visiting. He does not feel free to enjoy his yard but must go out armed with a heavy stick. He would be within his legal rights to shoot the dog, but he will not do that, for the sake of both the dog and his relations with the neighbors.

What he is asking us, the village board, is to introduce an animal-control regulation so that his neighbors’ dog can be picked up and impounded, and the neighbors fined — which would presumably be a strong incentive for them to restrain their dog more effectively.

I was elected to the village board three years ago, and reelected last year. My election followed a short stint as a member of the zoning board of appeals for the village, appointed by the mayor. Thus began my political career, such as it is. I feel no ambivalence about taking part in the governance of our village. I am interested to know, from the inside, what is going on here in my immediate community, and to have a say in it, even if I may be outvoted. The experience has so far been an education in several interesting areas besides the way in which a municipal body is run: Most significantly, I am learning the limits of idealism, especially when it runs up against economic reality; the need to allow for conflicting interests, even when I think some of those interests are misguided, if not destructive; and the complexity of even the simplest problem, such as whether or not to have an animal-control law.

The two objections that I might have posed to myself against sitting on the village board were: Did I really have the time, and wouldn’t I find the meetings and the work tiresome? To those hesitant to run for public office, I say (shamelessly proselytizing): Of the five members of the board, I do not have to be the most energetic or enterprising — it can be enough to show up, listen, comment now and then, and vote. As to the second objection, I do not find the meetings boring — I don’t mind learning something new about road surfaces, setback requirements, or the cost of plowing snow; and after a day of working at my desk in solitude, I enjoy the company of the others on the board and the group decision-making that is usually less taxing than the decisions I make on my own. (And as for those who think they are too shy — true, my heart still pounds, sometimes, when I prepare to speak up in front of the board and the public. But it is perfectly all right to be a quiet member of the board.)

I think, yes, an animal-control law makes sense, the villagers should be protected from free-roaming dogs that pose a threat — although I have not noticed that this is a general problem. The one free-roaming dog in my part of the village was a friendly black Lab who made periodic visits to nearby yards as though avuncularly checking up on the neighborhood. He is gone now.

But then, as so often happens, another board member speaks up and points out the disadvantages to adding such a regulation: The village would have to hire an animal-control officer and pay his yearly salary, whether he was needed or not. He would rarely be needed. The village would also, at least initially, be responsible for paying the kennel charges for the impounded dog. And it was surprisingly common, in these cases, for the owner of a problem dog simply to abandon and disown the creature and refuse to pay the charges. Various options were discussed, and another board member was asked to research the laws of nearby villages of similar size and report on possible solutions. For now, the matter rests there.

The monthly meetings of the board are open to the public, but the public rarely shows up in great numbers. The former mayor sometimes comes, offering, in the portion of the meeting open for public comment, valuable historical information; one faithful attender is a woman with strong opinions, pro and con, regarding our decisions and our work, as well as good information about her neighborhood, including alerts to potential problems. Another once-regular attender who has by now given it up came with not only helpful information and comments but also repeated complaints about the poor air quality in his yard, which was due to what he alleged was his neighbor’s illegal use of an excessively large indoor wood boiler — a method of heating that can, if improperly used, produce heavy particulate smoke that lingers in low-lying, dense layers over the surrounding landscape. The complainant would remind us that his child was asthmatic and suffered unduly from this heavy smoke.

It took several explanations by the mayor and the village attorney before I began to grasp why we could not help this fellow villager. I am slowly understanding the thin line between a matter in which the village should officially intervene and what is known as a neighbor-to-neighbor dispute. Although most of the discussions during the monthly meetings follow a regular agenda addressing such topics as the village budget, road maintenance, community outreach (flags on the telephone poles or an annual cookie contest), and building-code enforcement, we are every now and then engaged by one neighbor complaining about another.

And this is one more thing I have learned, living in a small, rural village — the prevalence and fierceness of border disputes, no matter how small the properties sharing a border. It has given me much to think about, considering the enormous border disputes that wrack the world. It would seem that border disputes are simply inevitable. How one deals with them is then the question.

Nearly everyone living on my own road, for instance, has quarreled with his or her contiguous neighbor. One quarrel arose because Jed (not his real name) planted an Asian lily one foot over his property line, into the wilderness of young trees on his neighbor’s vacant lot. In another case, bad feeling arose because a compost pile was established too close to the boundary. Still another did, in fact, involve a dog that — unusually — had escaped from its yard and killed a neighbor’s cat. The injury was later aggravated when a fence was mistakenly erected by the dog owner ten feet into the cat owner’s land.

Whether the disputes are resolved amicably or not seems to depend mainly on the personalities involved — on a desire, on both parts, to get along, or the absence of that desire. In the case of the cat and dog owners, relations have eased to the point of a courteous wave of greeting, now that the fence has been moved back to where it belongs. In the case of the compost pile, relations are still chilly. The owner of the wild vacant lot has not yet forgiven the planter of the lily. The owner of the indoor wood boiler remains a determined enemy of the neighbor with the asthmatic child. But once-feuding neighbors a few houses down have long ago forgotten their differences and become close friends, the older couple now acting as stand-in grandparents when needed.

At the last meeting, I asked — still permitted to be naïvely optimistic, since I am a relative newcomer to the board — whether we couldn’t install an official village mediator to help work out neighbor-to-neighbor disputes (since I believe — again, naïvely, no doubt — in negotiation and diplomacy to solve world problems, rather than the use of force). For a few minutes, the idea was considered with interest. But then the mayor, or perhaps it was the attorney, pointed out that both parties would have to agree to work with the mediator.

’s translation of Proust’s Letters to His Neighbor appeared this year from New Directions. She is currently assembling her first collection of essays.

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