Neighbor's trash dump

mrblandingsJuly 26, 2004

The situation is fairly complex so I'm going to try to stick to a few basic facts that I think are relevant.

I live on a steep hill. The street runs straight up the hill, so all the lots on the street have yards that would naturally slope from side to side. In the back, my yard is level, and is bordered by a steep slope running up to my neighbor's back yard, which is also level.

When I bought my house 5 years ago, a large part of this backyard slope was covered with what appeared to be a leaf and yard waste pile, held in place by a "wall" made of stacked slabs of scrap concrete (e.g. what you would have if you tore up a sidewalk or concrete driveway). The wall was approximately on the property line, which is about halfway up the slope. The wall acted as a dam to the material on the slope.

This spring, the "wall" collapsed after a heavy rain, causing concrete blocks, leaves, and trash to slide into my yard. Yes, trash: under the leaves there were bottles, cans, auto batteries, pretty much everything you would associate with typical household waste. A big of digging revealed that the trash ran all the way up to the top of the slope.

My neighbor's first response was to offer to clean up whatever trash had crossed the property line into my yard. I suggested he really should clean up all the trash, since I'm sure it's not legal to operate a dump in your back yard. He resisted, and I decided to make his life easier by offering to put a dumpster in my yard, at my expense. He agreed. So I got the dumpster (15 yards, which seemed big enough based on my estimation of the quantity of trash). After a week of waiting for him to start cleaning (he offered to start "tomorrow" about 5 times), I figured I'd put in a few hours to get the job started myself. At this point, I discovered that my original estimate of the quantity of trash was vastly underestimated. Moreover, after digging through the layers of standard household trash, which more than filled the dumpster, I found a layer of concrete blocks and asphalt. At this point I confronted my neighbor again and pointed out that there was much more trash than originally estimated, and that it looked like a job that would take a small crew of strong workers several days at least. (Did I mention my neighbor is 70 years old?) I asseted again that it was his responsibility to clean up the mess, since it was not legal. At this point, he said that most (??!!!) of the trash was there when he bought his house (40 years ago) and thus not his fault. Yes, he had thrown a few bottles, cans, tires, broken windowpanes and the odd lawnmover or three down the hill over the years (I guess since it was already a dump, that makes it OK??) But he would borrow his son's truck and help clean it up anyway...

I should mention that the entire slope is very visible from my windows and back yard, but it is not at all visible from my neighbor's house or yard. Hence I have a strong motivation in getting my neighbor's part of the slope cleaned up, but he has none at all.

Since that time I have filled another 15 yard dumpster and there is no end in sight. My neighbor has come by twice with his pickup and worked maybe 1 hour each time. Below the trash there is at least 2 feet of asphalt chunks and broken concrete. My theory of the trash dump origins (my neighbor acts suspiciously oblivious and says he knows nothing about it) is that 40 years ago, the previous house on that site was razed to the ground, and some of the debris (perhaps the demolished driveway was the source of the asphalt) was just pushed aside and down the hillside. I suspect my neighbor (who is in the construction trade) may have actually directed this whole process (perhaps to save money on constructions costs) since the house was built for him. But that is speculation. So I am left with a hillside full of debris, a neighbor who still promises to come "tomorrow" to clean it up. I have contacted the city but apparently he has broken no laws unless the trash is attracting rats, which it isn't.

I have contemplated legal action but I'm concerned that if I start a feud there are plenty of perfectly legal things my neighbor could do to make my life miserable. I want to stay on good terms because I would like to be able to plant the entire hillside with ground cover for erosion control -- if we get in a legal battle I assume he could deny me access to his property so I would be left with view of a bare, eroding hillside even if he cleans off the trash. So, I'm thinking I just have to suck it up and pay for the whole cleanup myself (probably several thousand dollars, according to one contractor I spoke with). Do others agree? Any "creative" solutions I have not considered?

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How about a couple of annonomous calls acompanied by photographs?I would start with the local code enforcement people and expand to area newspapers and a few enviromental or watch dog citezen groups.Try to get an organization to file the complaint so that your name is not connected.Good luck,Sandy

    Bookmark   July 27, 2004 at 11:53AM
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Simply put, your neighbor is in violation of Massachusetts laws regarding open pit dumps.

At this point, you've done everything that you need to do.

If you really want to rock his world, threaten to report him to the state Dept. of Environmental Affairs, give him 1 week to clean up the ENTIRE mess, and if he doesn't follow through, YOU follow through.

He's already admitted to using the dump, which means that legally, he now owns the entire thing.

Impress on him that if the state gets involved, it's very likely that he'll face SERIOUS financial problems.

You've done far more than you need to, you've been far more accommodating that anyone has a right to expect, and he's been far less graceful a neighbor than you have been.

Why are you so worried about maintaining a good "neighborly" association when he's already proven that he has absolutely NO interest in it?

    Bookmark   July 27, 2004 at 1:57PM
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I had previously suggested to my wife that we might look into any state environmental violations since our town code doesn't seem to have any teeth. My wife immediately began imagining a scenario in which they find toxic chemicals in the soil which have washed downhill into our yard, thus causing the state to condemn our house as a Superfund site. Far-fetched, I know, but she won't budge on this issue. A less paranoid argument might be that having an official state environmental code violation next door on the record -- even for a situation that was subsequently cleaned up -- could hurt our future resale value much more than it will cost us to clean up the mess. In any case, as much as I'd like to sic the state on this guy, we're not going down that path.

    Bookmark   July 27, 2004 at 9:57PM
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Well, if you're not willing to get the state involved, then your options for getting him to clean all this up are AMAZINGLY limited.

Taking him to court, where the nature of the issue will have to be explained, will very likely set off a chain of events that could well end up with state invovlement.

So, it looks as if you're back to square one, which is begging your neighbor to do the right thing, which he apparently isn't interested in doing.

    Bookmark   July 28, 2004 at 12:43PM
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You know, I just noticed your user name...

Is it a reference to the Cary Grant/Myrna Loy movie, Mr. Blanding Builds His Dream House?

    Bookmark   July 29, 2004 at 12:54AM
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Re: Cary Grant movie. You got it. I especially identify with the sequence where everyone tells him: "tear it down!" Every so often I WISH I could do that with our 1890 house...

    Bookmark   July 29, 2004 at 9:39AM
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I grew up in a house that was built, in sections, between 1875 and about 1900. I'm sure that my parents felt that way at times, but it was simply too beautiful a house to do so. :-)

So, what do the parents do when they decided to move? Bought a house built in 1903!

I think every owner of an older home feels that way at times.

I'd kill to have a house like that, though. My 1979 townhouse has no charm, no appeal, no class. It's 4 walls and a roof.

But, back to the dump/movie, maybe your maid will make an off the cuff comment about hams and dumps that will bring the light of reason over your neighbor? :-D

    Bookmark   July 29, 2004 at 10:14AM
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So yesterday I had my landscaper bring a 30 yard dumpster, a crew of guys, and a backhoe to clean up the mess. It took them all day but they got it done. Right now it's just a big expanse of dirt, but it still looks so much better than the previous trash pile. With some shrubs and ground cover, and a few years time, I may begin to forget about how pissed off I am at my neighbor.

    Bookmark   July 30, 2004 at 9:04AM
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Be sure to send your neighbor the bill for your landscaper, his crew and the dumpster(s).

In my opinion, you have been more than gracious.

It's not your fault that your yard was filled with the trash from his dump and you shouldn't be left holding the bag.

BTW, what's to keep this from happening again? There has got to be more "stuff" up in his yard just waiting for gravity to take effect....


    Bookmark   July 30, 2004 at 10:16PM
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I may send the bill, but I'm not so hopeful that he would do anything. He really doesn't seem to get it that he has done anything wrong. Another piece of sociological background on the whole situation is that I live in a neighborhood that is gradually transitioning from blue-collar to professional -- my neighbor owned and ran a stonemasonry business that he has passed on to his sons. So it's possible that this is his way of thumbing his nose at the wave of yuppie invaders to "his" neighborhood.

    Bookmark   July 31, 2004 at 7:32AM
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If you weren't one of the "yuppie invaders" he would still have to take care of his trash in his neighbors yard.

It's possible that he is just the kind of person who procrastinates about things that aren't going to be pleasant to deal with. That kind of attitude crosses all socio-economic boundries.
You seem to be a very patient person. That also crosses all socio-economic boundries.

I think it has less to do with who YOU are and more to do with how HE lives his life.

He is fortunate that you aren't the kind of person who flies off the handle about stuff like this!

Someone with a different personality may have called every law enforcement agency they could think of to force him to take care of it.

You may also want to invest in a retaining wall......


    Bookmark   July 31, 2004 at 11:11AM
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Update. I had an opportunity today to inspect the site more closely now that most of the trash is gone. I say most because I found (on my neighbor's side of the property line) a number of pieces of rusty metal that are clearly attached to much larger objects buried in the ground. I did not want to dig them out since this would probably just worsen the erosion situation. Also, now that the trash is cleared from the top of the hill, I am getting a better picture of the possible history of the site. At the top of the hill, held back only by a chainlink fence, you can clearly see at least a few feet of exposed trash. So here's my theory. When his house was built (about 40 years ago) the area that is now my neighbor's back yard was a dump. Not an official one but just a place where everyone threw their trash. The yard was on a slope, and he (or the developer -- this is not clear) wanted a flat yard, so what did he do? Bulldozed the trash (along with debris from the demolished house) over to one side to level the yard, and covered it with topsoil. Where the yard was flat, the topsoil remained. But on the edge, where the lot becomes sloped, the topsoil washed away, exposing the trash. To which my neighbor added more trash of his own over the years, for reasons that I still cannot fathom.

So, back to the question of what do I do. At this point the only options to truly remedy the situation appear to be VERY expensive. Short of bulldozing half of his back yard (where he has planted very nice gardens, I should add), it seems like the best option is (as you mention above) a retaining wall, which would have to be built on HIS property (if it was built on mine, it would need to be about 20 feet high). Does he have any legal obligation to remedy this situation? Does it matter whether he directed the construction or whether it was done by a developer and he just bought the house? My DW wants to just plant ivy and hope it holds the soil and covers everything up in a few years. I think I'm going to at least talk to a lawyer to try to understand the legal angles of the situation. This should be interesting...

    Bookmark   July 31, 2004 at 4:03PM
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Does he have any legal obligation?

My take on it is yes, he does, especially since he admitted to using the dump over the years.

I hope you recorded everything with photographs.

At the very least, you're likely out several thousand dollars of cleanup because this guy wouldn't do what was right.

I really think that because your wife doesn't want to involve the state your options are dramatically limited. As I noted in a previous message, if it goes lawsuit, it may very well get the state involved.

My suggestion?

Get the state involved. I know your wife doesn't want to, but sticking one's head in the sand is never a good strategy.

    Bookmark   August 1, 2004 at 1:18PM
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I have plenty of photos. In fact I've just posted a few for your amusement. It makes a nice contrast to my other photo album of our bath renovation.

Here is a link that might be useful: Trash dump photos.

    Bookmark   August 1, 2004 at 3:34PM
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I can only imagine how much this cleanup has already cost you. If you don't get the neighbor to build the wall and bring in topsoil you probably will need to get your checkbook out again.

    Bookmark   August 1, 2004 at 3:56PM
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Thanks for posting pictures!

Honestly, the first thing that came to mind when I saw the photos is that the roots of the trees are quite possibly the only thing holding this hillside in place.

If the slope continues to erode (which is a definite possibility), the roots may become compromised to the point where the trees will fall.

I would get some kind of landscape/retaining wall/arborist type professional involved to give you some recommendations of where to go from here.

Your problems may be just beginning......

Hopefully I'm just being "Chicken Little"-


    Bookmark   August 1, 2004 at 9:16PM
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Pooh Bear

Looks good after cleanup.
Dig out around the metal pieces and get somebody with an oxy/acetaline torch to cut them off below ground level. Then cover them back up with dirt.

We just cleaned up an area that was half in our yard and half in our neighbors property. This area was in a curve of the road and was being used as a dump. With neighbors permission I had a dozer grade it all off so I could keep it mowed. Then we went and got a $10 50pound bag of bird seed from Walmart and spread the seed all over the area for grass seed. That bird seed works great for grass seed and it is cheap.

I can't really see your neighbor (or mine) complaining about improving his property if he doesn't have to pay for it.
I mow some of my neighbors property cause it is easier for me to take care of it. And it helps the whole neighborhood.

It may cost you a little money but it will be worth it in the long run.
Just keep your neighbor in the loop and get it cleaned up.
Think of it as a good deed for the neighborhood.

Looks great. Keep it up.

Pooh Bear

    Bookmark   August 1, 2004 at 10:45PM
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How recently did he say that he had been using that dump?

Take a look at the "Trash Detail" picture.

That's a NEW, likely less than a year old, spray paint can.

He's been using that dump regularly.

And, I really hate to tell you this, but my guess is that the rest of that hill is just unstable as hell, and a lot more of it is going to come screaming down into you back yard a lot sooner than later.

    Bookmark   August 2, 2004 at 11:36PM
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Just talked to a lawyer about this issue. His advice was to avoid litigation if at all possible. My neighbor could counter-sue for trespass and theft of his "property" (i.e. the trash), since we had only a verbal agreement regarding permission for me to clean it up. Probably he would not win ultimately but it could become very expensive to litigate. Best outcome for me would be to negotiate to purchase the upper section of hillside from him -- since it is of no use to him, and is in fact a potential liability due to erosion problems, he might be willing to let it go for cheap. The settlement contract could include his agreement to build a retaining wall at the top of the hill, on his side of the new property line. So, the saga continues...

    Bookmark   August 4, 2004 at 10:18AM
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Oh man, I'm not sure if I agree with your attorney at ALL!

I don't see how, in any stretch of the imagination, that he could claim theft. The pile is OBVIOUSLY a midden, and more than a few court cases have held that when something is obviously discarded no issue of theft attaches.

The same rulings have been extended police searching garbage. Rulings have been consistent in that once something is discarded, police no longer need a warrant to search.

The trespass issue is certainly sticky, but you might have a potential out using a claim of exigent circumstances necessary to prevent further damage to your property.

I'm not certain that I'd want to purchase the hill at all, because if you do that, you then likely purchase any liability for the existing dump and its contents.

    Bookmark   August 4, 2004 at 12:36PM
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My attorney's point was that the case might not get thrown out, so it could be expensive for me even if I ultimately prevail. He said there is probably no grounds for damages, so best case would be to recover my costs for the cleanup, which just isn't that much compared to the legal costs.

Regarding liablity for the trash: I asked about this, and his opinion was that there is no liability for household trash items which are unsightly but inert. The only issue would be chemicals that could leach into ground water or otherwise create nuisance or harm beyond the property boundaries. I have seen no evidence of any industrial use of the site -- everything has been either household trash or construction debris typical of a demolished residence (aluminum windows frames, concrete, asphalt, etc.)

The appeal of the property transfer is that it brings the property boundaries into alignment with the visual boundaries. The whole hillside is in my face when looking out my window, and there is no way I can build a fence high enough to block the upper part from view. My neighbor can't see the hillside at all unless he walks right to the edge of his yard. For now, he seems OK with me "trespassing" to maintain the hill, but that could end at any time, and frankly, he has given me no reason to trust him. In fact, he could use this as a threat to prevent me from complaining about future egregious actions -- if you complain about X, I'll tear out all the shrubs and plant orange traffic cones on "my" half of the hill!

    Bookmark   August 4, 2004 at 2:37PM
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Well, I still think you need to get the state environmental department involved.

What's the limit for small claims court litigation in Massachusetts? You could possibly go that route sans attorney and get at least part of your money back.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2004 at 12:33AM
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Holy cow. Can't believe those pictures! You are far kinder than I am. I think I'd have had the dumpster hauled up to his place and emptied!!! (Yes, I know it would have come right back down on your place sooner or later but oooooh, the satisfaction...)

    Bookmark   August 5, 2004 at 12:19PM
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Why don't you post to the Gardenweb Landscape Design forum and ask for some expert opinions on effective groundcover for keeping the slope right where it is?

I'm impressed with the job you've done so far.

Here is a link that might be useful: Design Forum

    Bookmark   August 5, 2004 at 12:20PM
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We have been working with a great landscape designer for this project. She had the landscaper put in ivy all over the upper part of the slope -- she thought that would be our best bet for a fast-growing, erosion-controlling groundcover in the semi-shady location. The soil is covered with jute and then with a layer of mulch. We also had drip irrigation installed throughout to maximize the plants' growth rate. She thinks in 2-3 years it should start to get pretty dense.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2004 at 2:26PM
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What a hassle.

What kind of seller disclosure laws are there for home sellers in MA? I know that you're not planning on selling now but I wonder if this will be an issue for you in the future. Eeesh.


    Bookmark   September 14, 2004 at 10:42PM
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i was going to say at some point you have to stop removing the trash and just start covering it - i would probably use compost to cover - and to prevent future erosion - you need to establish deep fibrous rooted plants - stay away from crown vetch and black locust - they are often recommended for this type of situation and can actually make it worse - i would recommend a native grass and wildflower mix - these plants are deep fibrous rooted and are often used for erosion control - you may have to remove a few trees to open the canopy to get enough sunlight in to get the erosion preventing plants to grow - the bottom stumps (about 2 to 3' tall need to be left in place) and roots of the trees need to stay in place - eventually they do decay and will be filled in by the native plantings - you may need to add some terracing too... i wouldnt buy the property as you will then be buying the liability of owning all of that trash. i would ask the guy for permission to plant and terrace - verbal agreement - should be enough to give you the permission you need to clean up the area - and make it nice ...

    Bookmark   September 20, 2004 at 11:31AM
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mrblandings, nearly a year later, how is it all coming aong?

    Bookmark   June 26, 2005 at 2:39PM
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" back to the question of what do I do."

Although you cleaned up the bottom of the hill, there's a disaster waiting to happen (next heavy rain) at the top.

Call the City and the County and report the illegal dump, and find out who insures his house and let them know it is built on a trash dump and that they will be liable for any problems his downhill neighbors have. Call a lawyer and find out what your legal options are as far as collecting the costs of the cleanup from the neighbor and forcing a COMPLETE cleanup of the whole dump.

These private dumps cause more problems than a large legal dump ever would!

    Bookmark   July 4, 2005 at 10:02AM
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Nearly one year later, the plantings are starting to fill in nicely on the lower slope; the ivy and goutweed on the upper slope are hanging in there and hopefully will start to spread. Garlic mustard is taking over one part of the upper slope and I'm just leaving it alone, figuring anything with roots is better than bare soil.

I know it seems to everyone that there should be some legal remedy here, but it just doesn't seem to be the case. According to the lawyer I consulted, I might have been able to collect costs of the cleanup on my property only (which was a relatively small portion of the total issue) IF I had a paper trail of letters and notices before I did anything -- but I do not, it was all just verbal discussion. And, there's really no legal grounds for forcing him to clean up his own property or collecting costs once I did it for him.

As far as my city government goes, they are notoriously lax about this type of thing -- they basically told me if it was not a health code violation (i.e. toxic substances or attracting vermin, etc) they would not get involved. I had a conversation with the State Dept of Environmental Management and they told me I could file a report but informally said I would probably be wasting my time as they had bigger problems to deal with (toxic waste sites etc) and were unlikely to devote any resources to trash in someone's back yard.

    Bookmark   July 8, 2005 at 7:34AM
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Here's a photo I just took this morning. In the summer, the worst parts of the upper slope and the remaining trash and neighbor's "shack" are hidden by trees.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   July 8, 2005 at 7:47AM
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I'm a year late in arriving at this discussion - but I applaud your efforts and the outcome.....



    Bookmark   July 8, 2005 at 4:03PM
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You've done a beautiful job. Lots of work and money but the results are wonderful.

    Bookmark   July 9, 2005 at 2:53PM
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    Bookmark   July 10, 2005 at 11:30PM
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