Property-line dispute leads to policy change

Sussex officials modify complaint procedures
Patricia Fish, who lives in the Deerwood development near Harbeson, stands by the fence in question along her back property line. BY RON MACARTHUR
September 25, 2013

Sometimes you can win a fight with city hall, and sometimes government listens and reacts to what its constituents say.

Such is the case with a property-line dispute brought to Sussex County Council's attention by Patricia Fish, who lives in the Deerwood community near Harbeson. Because of her case, changes have been made in the way the county planning and zoning department handles complaints and potential violations. Residents facing potential violations now have a procedure to respond to a complaint.

During council's July 23 meeting, Fish appeared to express her displeasure with the way she was treated by planning and zoning staff, prompting council to direct County Administrator Todd Lawson and county attorney J. Everett Moore to investigate her charges.

Fish said she was notified by mail on May 5 that her fence extended 4.6 feet onto her neighbor's lot. “You must remove this fence to avoid legal action from our constable’s office,” the letter stated. The complaint was filed by a neighbor who supplied a survey to the county.

Fish said she had a survey showing that the fence was on her property. Lawson noted that there were three separate surveys that showed different results. “One in fact showed the fence fully on Mrs. Fish's land,” Lawson wrote in his report to council.

“What upset me was that the county took the side of the new surveyor without asking for my survey. It was like I was found guilty without a trial. I had no chance for defense,” Fish said.

The violation was rescinded. “The county says they are removed from the case, but that doesn't mean I still might face a civil suit from my neighbor,” Fish said.

Lawson said it's important that county staff respond to complaints and potential violations of county code and zoning regulations. “It is equally important that the public be aware that at the preliminary stage they are potential violations. At that point no final determination has been made,” Lawson wrote.

Lawson said correspondence from the planning and zoning office will be improved and will clearly explain a potential violation.

The initial letter from the county will inform the recipient of a potential violation and give the recipient 10 days to respond in writing or in person to refute the violation. If the violation is not disputed, the county and the resident can discuss a resolution. If there is no response, the matter will be turned over to the Justice of the Peace Court.

Following the county's investigation of a complaint, a follow-up letter will also be sent stating what action has been taken. Lawson said he met with the entire planning and zoning staff to implement the protocols that went into place earlier this month.

“I truly appreciate Mrs. Fish's efforts to bring this matter to our attention so we can address it,” Lawson said.

“I think the county took it's time and did a nice job,” Fish said. "I'm a widowed woman who just wants to live in peace."



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