Legislating neighborliness

The recent headlines about a proposed change to Richmond’s barking dog ordinance highlights a lesson that I think many communities still have to learn: if you’ve come to the point of legislating neighborliness, you’ve already lost.

The moment after we codify specific quiet hours and acceptable barking durations into law, someone will point out a scenario or an exception where the law doesn’t make sense. What about someone who works third shift and is sleeping during the day? What about parents desperately trying to get a young child to sleep for a mid-day nap? What about…

It’s probably important to have some kind of ordinance on the books that empowers the City to handle the most egregious offenders. But I would hope that before turning to the legalistic imperatives of a law in order to get someone living near us to reduce the noise their dog (or lawnmower, or leaf blower, or party guests) is making, we would start a little more simply: with a direct conversation.

Unfortunately, it’s all too common that we’re not even on speaking terms with the people on our block. We’d probably hesitate to ask the folks next door for a cup of sugar (maybe a modern equivalent is a wifi password?), let alone to initiate a slightly awkward conversation about keeping the noise down or putting the dog in. In places where neighborhood associations once thrived, talk of who has how many guns to protect themselves from hypothetical strangers at their door have taken hold. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else; I recently moved to a new street and still don’t know the names of people I pass on walks every day.

I imagine members of our City Council are doing their best to respond to the pleas they’ve received from local residents who have had it with certain barking dogs. But you can start to see the dangers of translating that to a narrow legislative debate about the administrative details of a barking ordinance, when perhaps instead we should be looking at the bigger picture. Perhaps we should be having conversations about increasing connection between neighbors so they can work on some of these challenges more directly without relying on local law enforcement. (Our Mayor suggested as much recently too.) Maybe we should be doing more education around humane treatment of animals and responsible pet ownership. And maybe we should be helping our community improve its conflict resolution skills in general.

These things aren’t solely the responsibility of our elected official to figure out. It’s on all of us.

If we have more of those conversations, maybe we’ll find we don’t need to spend as much time making laws to help us be friendly, kind, supportive, respectful and helpful to each other, at any hour of the day.

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Chris Hardie

Chris Hardie is an Internet tech geek, problem solver, community-builder and amicable cynic.

2 thoughts on “Legislating neighborliness”

  1. Chris. I agree with you in principle. Why can’t we just get along?? But people are not all interested in getting along. We asked a neighbor to stop letting his dog go potty in our yard and it became one of the most irrational situations. It’s sad but sometimes the law needs to be

  2. A funny story that illustrates your point and happened to us while living in Richmond. We got a new set of neighbors who moved into town from the country with 3 untrained dogs. There was no fence and the dogs did not even have collars. The woman let the dogs out at 3:30 in the morning and if they didn’t come in before she left for work her husband would be under our bedroom window at 4 am calling “Jack, Jack”. So, Jim being Jim went over and introduced himself. He found out the backstory and let them know about our concerns and difficulty getting enough sleep. As weeks and months went by there were other problems and he would go over and have a neighborly conversation about the problems. One day we look out the window and the police are there responding to complaints about the dogs. They decided to build a fence and a dog run. They built the dog run on the other side of their house not our side. The funny part is we did not call the police. The neighbors on the other side were making the complaints but because they never said anything to the dog owners to let them know of the problem the dog run is next to their property instead of ours.

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