Publication Date: Wednesday, March 13, 2002
On being a neighbor
Even after a disagreement, it's important --
and possible -- to still be friends
by Harold A. Justman
When you buy a house, you inherit the neighbors from the prior
owners. If you are lucky, you will enjoy your neighbors. Some young
neighbors are brought together by the sharing of the joys and burdens
of raising each other's children. Some elderly neighbors are held
together by the sharing of the burdens of aging. Sadly, some neighbors
are a collection of isolated strangers living in contiguous houses.
Or, as the 19th-Century author Mary Ann Evans observed, some neighbors
are loosely connected by "intermittent condescension."
Many Palo Alto neighbors band together to have a voice before the
city council. In recent years the University South Neighborhood
Group (USNG) has been a good example of how political participation
can give a neighborhood a sense of fellowship and purpose when the
neighborhood is confronted with dramatic changes in property uses.
USNG has kept neighbors well informed and involved in the development
of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation site. USNG meetings often bring
neighbors together in a cooperative spirit.
However, some neighbors have been pitted against each other regarding
the future growth of their neighborhood. The historic ordinance
drove a wedge between neighbors. Neighbors were split on the issue
of single-story overlay zones. The new individual design review
process for single-family neighborhoods will affect virtually all
households and could pit neighbor against neighbor. Soon the city
will be updating the Palo Alto Zoning Ordinance to reflect the latest
The outcome of the zoning ordinance update will affect every homeowner
in Palo Alto. The new Director of Planning and Community Environment,
Stephen Emslie, has said, "The zoning ordinance update is the
teeth that makes the Comprehensive Plan happen." Some Palo
Alto homeowners will feel the bite of the zoning ordinance more
than others. The location of new housing is already straining relationships
between Palo Altans who live north and those who live south of Oregon
To maintain fellow feelings in our neighborhoods will require true
leadership, especially when competing groups polarize a neighborhood.
During the discussions and subsequent vote concerning the city's
historic preservation ordinance, that leadership was not displayed.
Despite hiring consultants and appointing commissions, many concerned
citizens were not heard. The real stakeholders may not have been
Some groups are offended if the city council even listens to the
other side on an issue. Wise leaders know that the inability to
understand another's point of view shows a lack of imagination.
City leaders should seek out all points of view. However, public
forums -- such as those held on whether retail space should be located
on first floors of office buildings -- may promote the city staff's
point of view but appear to offer a slick, manipulative public relations
campaign. These are not well received in Palo Alto. Palo Alto residents
are smart enough to vet the issues themselves. More recently, consultants
hired by the city have encouraged residents organizing a library
bond measure to include community facilities in the measure. Significantly,
the experts also encouraged the city council to communicate with
Leaders with vision have their place. But in Palo Alto the residents
who have conflicting visions are ill served when one vision overwhelms
another. Neighborly understanding of both visions and a willingness
to find common ground would demonstrate true leadership.
In friendship and marriage there comes a time when you strongly
disagree on an issue. As a result of that conflict, you may not
even like your friend or spouse at that moment. Those who value
the friendship or marriage take steps to save the relationship.
Once you choose to save the relationship, a compromise on the issues
becomes clear. Palo Altans need to choose to save their relationships
with their neighbors. A good relationship with a neighbor can mitigate
many a neighborhood nuisance.
As the issues around affordable housing, zoning, traffic and repairs
to community facilities bring Palo Altans into conflict, we should
all remember that we are trying to preserve our relationships with
our neighbors. If you value your neighbor, then compromises with
your neighbor will be easy. Imagine if on a difficult issue, we
could reach a neighborly accommodation.
Harold Justman has lived in Palo Alto since 1964. He has specialized
in real estate law for more than 20 years and is often asked to
lecture on real estate law to attorneys and real estate brokers.
Send questions to Justman care of Palo Alto Weekly, P.O. Box 1610,
Palo Alto, CA 94302.