Given my profession, it’s perhaps not surprising that, even when I’m away from the office, conversations and questions often turn to the laws of our land – or, more specifically, the laws of our neighbourhoods.

If there’s a legal area that unites – and, unfortunately, sometimes divides – us, it’s the regulations around what we, and our neighbours, can and can’t do. Sadly, I know of all-too-many cases where the likes of a single rogue tree has brought a close, harmonious relationship crashing painfully down - in extreme situations, feuds can become more like messy divorces where, regardless of the ultimate outcome, no-one “wins”.

The best defence to avoid falling out with your neighbours over what’s happening in your respective backyards comes down to two key factors: knowledge and communication.

It’s not uncommon at all for neighbourly argy bargy to begin before one side – or worse, both – has even checked out the law. Ill-informed stances become stubbornly entrenched, clear perspective flies out the window, and large, gnarly icicles form on those previously toasty neighbourly relations.

So, what are the main bugbears I'm quizzed about?

At Number 3 is ...

Noise. Ah yes, conflicting lifestyles – especially in built-up areas – can leave neighbours quite at odds. One household’s fun-filled party, for example, can be anything but music to their neighbours' ears. So where does the boundary lie in terms of noise? The first stop to find the acceptable levels and types of noise can be found in your territorial authority’s district plan.

What’s important to note, though, is that different levels are acceptable at different times of the day; similarly, what’s perfectly fine in terms of noise activity in one zone, can be completely verboten in another.

What is and isn’t appropriate in terms of noise is a council matter. As a general guide, for the 12 hours from 8am, noise levels for non-residential activities can reach 50 decibels, but, when the clock strikes 8pm, that limit level generally drops to 40 decibels – what’s more, levels can’t exceed the threshold for more than 15 minutes continuously. The problem being, though, folk don’t tend to have a decibel meter at the ready, so a measure of common sense is needed.

Also, it’s not just parties that cause ructions. There are early-morning or late-night mowing … raucous children … power tools … barking dogs …

If you have an ongoing noise issue, talk to your neighbour. If you don't find a sympathetic ear, contact Noise Control at the local council to check your rights and possible remedies. If you’re on the noise-making side of the equation, it’s worth bearing in mind Noise Control officers’ powers are pretty wide-ranging – including the ability to confiscate your noise-making device.

Coming in at Number 2 are …

Trees. Some of the answers to common tiffs over the size and positioning of trees and hedges lie, in black and white, in the district plan. For example, in the Wanaka town area there is a rule that, notwithstanding protected species, any new tree or hedgerow planting within 2m of the boundary cannot exceed 1.9m in height.

A regular gripe centres on trees shading, and encroaching, on an adjacent property. The sensible course is to agree on how and when they’re pruned, and by whom. If that’s not settled, your neighbour can be quite entitled to take matters into their own hands if the tree has branches over their land. Too bad if it's not done with the finesse you’d have brought to the job.

There’s a plethora of do’s and don’ts when it comes to trees – pages upon pages of them, in fact, in the Queenstown-Lakes District’s tree policy alone. It’s always wise to check out the rules first, whether you’re planning to plant or fell a tree, or in cases where you and your neighbour aren’t seeing eye to eye.

Remember, too, tree problems run deep. Should the roots of a tree on your property span to your neighbour’s and collect a pipe or two along the way, guess who’s potentially up for the repair bill? That would be you.

Drumroll – Number 1 is …

Fences. If there’s anything that sets neighbourly tempers flaring, it’s the design, colour and/or cost of that great dividing line. Helpfully, there’s quite a prescribed framework called the Fencing Act 1978 – unhelpfully many people don’t know about it, let alone adhere to it. But the Act doesn’t exist in isolation. It must be read in concert with the district plan, which includes further regulations pertaining to your particular location.Also, don’t forgot what any covenants on the title to you property have to say about fences.

Unfortunately, such is the ignorance around fencing laws, far too many people set about putting up a fence having done absolutely no legal groundwork whatsoever. That’s a far cry from what they should have done: issue a “fencing notice” to the neighbour, including a description of the boundary; the type of fence, its dimensions and materials to be used; and, dates when the work will start and finish. And, of course, the cost.

Be particularly careful around defining where the boundary lies. It wouldn’t be the first time someone’s built a fence, only to have to tear it down, because they’ve inadvertently snaffled some of their neighbour’s land.

If the recipient doesn’t share your enthusiasm for the fence plans, they have 21 days to issue a formal counter-proposal, outlining their objections and alternatives. If they don’t respond, and as long as your fence plans are otherwise lawful, you have the green light to erect your fence as per your notice, and invoice your neighbour their share.

I have seen more cases of Neighbours at War than I care to remember. If you're planning anything on your property that's likely to impact your neighbour, do your homework. Fail, and you risk running foul of the law, and losing not just money, but friendships, too.

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