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Rich neighbors sue over a fence

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Fences are supposed to make good neighbors. But that wasn't the case with a stone wall in Westport, Conn., which pitted neighbor against neighbor and has cost its owner $150,000 in legal fees -- so far.

The story of the stone wall began in 2005 when Albert and Susan Hancock built it around their modest 1920s home in this affluent coastal town. While the wall was being built, one of the Hancocks' neighbors filed a complaint with the town. The town sent out inspectors but did not stop construction, though it later filed its own complaints against the Hancocks. Then, last year, the Hancocks' neighbor filed a separate suit claiming that because the wall runs along a private lane, all the homeowners on the road are liable.

How and when the story ends is still unclear. But the dispute opens a window into life in a wealthy suburb, where neighbors have enough money to fight for years over an issue that may have been quickly resolved in a less well-off town. In fact, Westport officials say such cases are not all that unusual.

"More than 50 percent of my day is dealing with these disputes," said Gordon Joseloff, the first selectman. "In Westport, the people are very wealthy, and at the first indication of anything, they'll threaten or file a lawsuit."

If nothing else, the Hancocks' story is a cautionary tale, illustrating what you should and should not do when your neighbors are watching you.

The initial complaint about the Hancocks' stone wall was over its proximity to a wetland. The town then raised other issues, like the fact that the wall lay six inches on town property -- even though it was built largely where an old wall had been -- and that the Hancocks had not sought the necessary permits before construction.

After four years, the Hancocks have spent some $150,000 on legal expenses and $50,000 for modifications and inspections of the wall. These expenses have already exceeded the $170,000 cost of the wall. But with their case going to Stamford Superior Court on Thursday, Mr. Hancock's lawyer said the couple could spend $150,000 more before the matter was resolved. If they lose, it would cost them at least $120,000 to tear down their wall, not counting any fines.

Jeffrey and Elizabeth Lillien, the neighbors who filed the initial complaint and the lawsuit last year, say they believe Westport has moved too slowly in the case. They argue that the wall violates environmental laws and that it rests on common property.

"The remedy is to remove the wall," said Mr. Lillien, a lawyer at UBS investment bank. "We care about the environment. We care about our property being maintained in a safe and sound manner." He added: "They're trying to turn this into an interpersonal issue. This is a legal issue."

The Hancocks counter that the Lilliens are busybody neighbors and say they are angry that the town has allowed the issue to drag on for so long. "This is wealth destruction," said Mr. Hancock, a senior vice president at ING Investment Management. "It's gone too far."

Ira Bloom, a lawyer representing Westport, said he did not know how much the town had paid his firm in the case but said he billed the town at a discounted rate of $200 an hour.

Property disputes are nothing new in wealthy towns. But their effects are more pernicious in a bad economy. A town has to take taxpayer money that could have been spent on schools or the police, while residents have to have the resources to defend themselves.

As with all litigation, both sides in the stone wall dispute argue that they are right. But even short of a resolution in the case, there are lessons to draw.

Get Everything in Writing. The Hancocks said they inquired about a permit for a stone wall but were told they did not need one because it was under eight feet tall. They did not have a survey because the new wall was largely built on the site of an old one. Philip Law, the builder, said he would testify that he had built similar stone walls without permits or problems in Westport.

Mr. Bloom, the town lawyer, said they should have gotten approval from the wetlands office, zoning office and building department. They also needed to get an encroachment waiver because of the portion of the wall on town property.

The problem is the Hancocks have no documentation for their initial conversations with town officials. Yet had the Lilliens not complained about their wall, the Hancocks probably would have been fine, if not legally right.

To complicate matters, the Lilliens' suit is steeped in rarely applied town law about sight lines and common property. "Rules are rules," Mrs. Lillien said. "I guess other people can do whatever they want to do and cram it down people's throats."

It would have taken the Hancocks longer to get everything in writing but that might have saved a lot of grief.

Beware Thy Neighbor. Both the lawyers for the town and the Hancocks said the driving force behind this has been the Lilliens. The Lilliens argue that the dispute is over principles and is more than a neighborly spat. They also say they have incurred their own legal bills to defend their property rights.

"The reason this has gone on so long is because the town has put that private dispute in the middle of the other issues," said Gwen Bishop, the Hancocks' lawyer. "They've taken that issue and used it to tie everything up."

The town said it has proceeded cautiously. "We're not talking Egyptian-Israeli border disputes, but I don't make fun of them," Mr. Joseloff, the first selectman, said. "They're important to these people."

And they are fairly common. Alan Spirer, the Lilliens' lawyer, said he had 30 property cases pending, most in Westport. In one, he is representing a woman whose vegetable garden was bulldozed by a neighbor. Typically, he said, these disputes cost clients $7,500 to $25,000 in legal bills.

Be Prepared to Lobby. Where the Hancocks admit they failed was in community relations. "We're perceived as really bad guys," Mr. Hancock said.

Local newspaper accounts of one town hearing painted the Hancocks as another wealthy commuter couple who thought they could do whatever they wanted. Yet the problem with class warfare in Westport is it becomes a battle between the haves and the have-mores. The median sale price of a home from May to July 2009 was $970,000, according to Trulia.com.

The Hancocks said their image at town meetings would have been different if they had been better at explaining their reason for building the new wall after eight years of living with the old one. On separate occasions, two cars and a town fire truck ran off North Avenue and onto their property. In one accident, only a tree stopped the car from landing in their dining room.

Their safety concerns were not part of the public discussion, and this shows the importance of making your case early and personally.

What Is the Goal? At the end of the day, knowing how long you will fight is the hardest part. Most of these battles start off simply: one neighbor does something another neighbor dislikes. But then the legal bills, fines and arguing starts. "If we knew we were going to be $150,000 into this on Day 1 and still only be halfway there, I'm not so sure we wouldn't have just torn down" the new wall, Mr. Hancock said.

Fighting on has taken a toll. They may prevail, but the emotional cost has been high, and they have half-jokingly say they have begun to worry that the wall costs could surpass what they paid for their house.

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