Neighbor-on-Neighbor Disputes Resolved

Many of us have dealt with neighbors with overgrown yards, but the large bushes next door recently became a lesson in conflict prevention for one West Portal resident. He was concerned that the bushes prevented him from seeing the road (and oncoming traffic) when he was entering and exiting his driveway. He usually had a good relationship with his neighbors, but it quickly soured when he asked them to take care of the thick brush. The conversation was tense, nothing was resolved and then the neighbors did not even say hello when passing each other.

Photo: Gardeners' frustrations with neighbor's shady, overgrown trees are a frequent dispute handled by mediators.

Rather than harbor hostilities or leave the hazardous conditions unaddressed, the neighbors turned to Community Boards, a San Francisco non-profit that provides low-cost mediation services to the city's citizens and merchants. For only $10, the neighbors started a community mediation and sat down with three trained volunteer mediators who listened to their concerns and helped find a mutually agreeable solution.

Bruce TowBruce Tow is a volunteer mediator for Community Boards, and has lived in the Westwood Highlands for nearly twenty years. He hears cases like this all the time, and finds that solutions are more readily accessible when neighbors take advantage of the non-profit's services. Community Boards settles disputes between neighbors, roommates, families, co-workers, landlords and tenants, and consumers and merchants, offering services in English, Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese.

"If you're having a dispute," said Tow, "Community Boards is a very good place to go first. It is fairly easy, costs virtually nothing, you get treated respectfully and you have an opportunity to tell your story. You will be heard, and you have the opportunity to work out a solution, which can be difficult if you don't have someone helping." Over 90% of Community Boards' cases are resolved to everyone's satisfaction.

Being heard by a group of problem-solvers can be the first step to settling conflict, as it was for two neighbors in the Sunset. A downstairs neighbor was disturbed by noise coming from the upstairs neighbor's television, which was left on all night. The two did not even know each other by name, and the notes left by the downstairs neighbor did nothing to solve the situation. When the police were called, they referred the issue to Community Boards.

During the mediation, it was revealed that the upstairs neighbor was recently widowed and left the television on to ease her loneliness. This caused the downstairs neighbor to feel some compassion, and the situation changed. They agreed to work together to solve the problem. The upstairs neighbor offered to turn down the volume after 11:30 PM and to try not to fall asleep with the television on. The relationship formed during the mediation helped bring the neighbors together, and now they call each other and talk directly when one is feeling disturbed.

"I suspect the mediation services offered by Community Boards slightly lower the temperature in San Francisco. It is a materially more peaceful place where people can live higher quality lives with fewer painful disputes than they might otherwise. Community Boards has certainly made the city a better place," said Tow. In recognition of Community Boards' 35th anniversary last month, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors officially commended the organization, whose work has inspired similar community mediation efforts across the world.

Community Boards helped solve the conflict between the West Portal neighbors concerned about overgrown bushes. In just one three-hour session, the two parties were able to come to a mutually agreeable solution to their property use dispute. The neighbors that owned the bushes agreed to hire and pay for a gardener, and the resident concerned for his safety agreed to chip in with an annual sum that would offset some of the gardening costs. Both parties were happy with the result of the mediation and felt that they gained valuable communication and dispute resolution skills that will serve them well in the future.

Bruce Tow agrees that the tools learned in community mediation serve him well in other aspects of his life. "I too have gained a better set of tools for dealing with problems that involve high emotions and disputes. I encourage someone who is interested in a quite satisfying form of volunteer service to work with Community Boards. You see firsthand that you are making a fairly significant difference in the peace and tranquility of lives of both individuals and communities," said Tow.

Community Boards offers mediation certification courses for volunteers interested in becoming mediators. The 40-hour basic course is held over two consecutive weekends several times throughout the year. The next course starts Friday, June 10th and partial scholarships are available. For more information about becoming a mediator, or to start a dispute mediation from the comfort of your home using their new online platform, visit or call 415-920-3820.

June 2011