Opinion Columns & Blogs

Courting a bamboozled boundary

I like Judge Charles Crandall’s sensibilities. Although I’ve never met the man, his writings read a lot like the late Judge Richard Harris’ judicial observations — wry, perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek and balanced.

Indeed, Harris was sort of the gold standard when it came to dispensing bon mots from the bench, and it’s comforting to see Crandall carrying on that fine tradition. Here’s a case in point:

Almost three years ago — Sept. 27, 2007, to be precise — a case was brought before Crandall’s Superior Court that dealt with a property issue between neighbors. (I won’t mention names or specific addresses, but if you care to look up both in the Statement of Decision, it’s Case No. 070850.)

It seems that a couple of guys (whom I’ll call “The Guys” for convenience’s sake) own a little bungalow in an older San Luis Obispo neighborhood. It’s a charming little single-story house probably built in the 1940s or ’50s.

Their next-door neighbor, a woman in her early 70s (whom I’ll call “Mrs. X”), lives in a newer, two-story corner home that not only abuts their yard but also fronts on a major city arterial.

The crux of the problem, at least as it’s been laid out in court papers, is that The Guys wanted privacy for their patio that shares a property line with Mrs. X. Not only did The Guys want something to shield their patio from Mrs. X’s second-story window, which looks down into their patio, they also wanted something that would screen overhead power lines between the two homes.

Although their home has several mature plum, palm and mulberry trees, The Guys decided to go for a “cloistered sanctuary” patio that mirrored the “defendants’ tropical aesthetic tastes,” according to the court record. As such, they planted bamboo.

And therein lies the root of the dispute: bamboo.

(OK, you either like bamboo or you don’t; there’s no middle ground. People like it because it can grow where nothing else will; or they hate it because it grows as fast and loose as a wobbly derailleur on a cheap 10-speed.)

In a footnote to his statement of decision, Crandall notes, “(Mrs. X) is very particular about what she expects to occur on her property and its borders. Her first interactions with (one of The Guys), and her use of a chainsaw on a tree that borders the properties, were unlikely to promote good neighbor relations.” (Exquisite understatement, judge.)

He adds: “(Mrs. X’s) perceptions are often exaggerated. Although she was apparently scared and threatened by the defendants’ actions, a reasonable person would not have been so emotionally impacted.”

I don’t know about you, but this last observation leaves me with the somewhat disconcerting image of a wild-eyed woman wielding a chainsaw by the silvery light of a half-moon, sizing up the girth of interloping mulberry roots with the intention of making a murderous surgical strike.

But it takes two (or three in this instance) to tango, and Judge Crandall didn’t let The Guys off the hook for their part in ratcheting up the stakes.

“(The Guys) decided early on to develop a landscaping (plan) without regard to the impacts of their plans on (Mrs. X). While justifiably irritated by (Mrs. X’s) self-help use of a chainsaw, they should at least have consulted with her about their landscaping plans before installing bamboo on the shared boundary. As discussed, bamboo is a notoriously problematic and invasive grass.”

Intrigued by the pejorative nature in which Judge Crandall characterized the bamboo, I dropped by for a first-person look-see and wasn’t disappointed; these babies are big, ol’ honkin’ trees! At maybe 5 to 6 inches in diameter and jutting up anywhere from 20 to 25 feet, the late-Thor Heyerdahl could have crafted Kon-Tiki II out of their trunks.

Bottom line? The Guys beat “spite fence” and trespassing allegations, but will have to chop the bamboo down to meet the city zoning code height of 6 feet — or take it out all together. Judge Crandall: “It is regrettable that early in the relationship, (Mrs. X) objected to the six-foot fence proposal made by the defendants, which is essentially the relief being ordered by the Court.” Mrs. X and The Guys have until Friday to accept the findings.

If not, well, as Judge Crandall notes in his decision: “This is an unfortunate case. … The court is troubled by the length of time, the amount of money, and the overall commitment of resources that have been devoted to this case to date.”

In a final footnote, the judge adds: “Following numerous fact and expert depositions over a period of years, the trial took five days to complete and involved eight witnesses. The appeal as of right may prolong the duration of this dispute for an additional period of years.” Yoiks!

So, like the Energizer Bunny who goes a courtin’, the Battle of the Bamboozling Boundary may just go on and on and on and on …

Reach Bill Morem at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or 781-7852.