Spring Real Estate 2002

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 Comprehensive Plan.

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 Expressway.

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 consulted.

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 the community.

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.