Columnist Donna Macdonald urges us to be good neighbours at Christmas and all year round. File photo

COLUMN: The neighbourly season

Donna Macdonald points out the benefit of being neighbourly

Tis the season to be jolly. And, at times, the season to be busy and stressed even as we hum those ear-worm Christmas carols. The need to plan the perfect meal and find the perfect gift looms large.

I don’t do a lot of shopping for Christmas, so I actually take great pleasure in wandering shops, especially in downtown Nelson. I usually end up with a smile plastered on my face from greeting friends old and new, even though my (re-usable) shopping bag remains empty.

What makes me feel jolly is my experience of community, of belonging. I love the giving and receiving of hugs, smiles and meaningful words way more than gifts wrapped in pretty paper. This year I’m thinking of it in terms of neighbourliness and what it takes to build a community of good neighbours.

Of course, neighbours aren’t just the folks living next door or down the street, or even in this region. We have global neighbours all around the world. It’s important to remember and support them, as we are able. Even though the causes are many and serious (from climate change to poverty), I appreciate being able to donate to organizations that tackle these issues year-round.

But, for the moment, let’s consider where we live and the people we share this space with. People often sneer at or recoil from the word “politics” but I would (and often do) argue that politics at the local level is all about community, about how we live together and resolve conflicts, how we share our resources of time and money, and how we create together the kind of city we want. In short, how we live with our neighbours.

I imagine that in the past people tended to just lean across the fence and talk to their neighbours, maybe sorting out the inevitable clashes that arise. These days it’s so much easier to whip off a clever harangue on Facebook or Twitter, than to just speak with someone, especially in a conflict situation.

Maybe that’s why the local group, the Nelson Good Neighbour Program, has faltered. They offer free mediation services by trained volunteers to people in conflict (e.g., over issues such as parking or noisy late night parties). The goal is to resolve disputes and build relationships.

Their vision statement, “helping people talk when tensions run high,” is very appealing. The catch is both sides have to agree to mediation, and that can be a big stumbling block. I confronted it myself when, at one point, I considered using the service to deal with a continually barking dog.

Being good neighbours takes some work, and some courage. And sometimes regulation. Many Canadian and B.C. cities have Good Neighbour bylaws that address street nuisances, noise regulations, property maintenance, nuisance smoke, graffiti, odors, weed control, idling, fires, and litter. Some are long and complex; some much simpler.

In Vernon and Williams Lake, for example, their Good Neighbour bylaws say the purpose is to enhance the quality of life of residents, promote civic responsibility, and encourage good relationships between neighbors.

The goal of the West Vancouver bylaw is “to protect and enhance the well-being of the community in relation to good neighbour practices thereby reducing nuisances, disturbances and other objectionable situations.”

As with most bylaws, enforcement is complaint-driven. And many complaints are resolved with a one-time visit from a by-law officer, and possibly a fine. But then there are the frequent offenders, the ones who aren’t easily persuaded that weed-eating at 6 a.m. or burning plastic in their fireplace might be a problem for their neighbours, a problem they ought to be concerned about.

Many Good Neighbour bylaws, including Kelowna’s new one, include a “nuisance abatement fee” of $250 if three or more calls per year are made to the same address. That’s in addition to individual fines. The fee can be applied to property taxes, so even absentee landlords are encouraged to be better neighbours.

One of the sections of the Kelowna bylaw refers to cracking down on “roaring or explosive” engine or exhaust noise from cars, motorcycles and boats. Hmm, that description could apply to a truck in my neighbourhood!

Of course we could all just build fences; there’s even a company called Good Neighbour Fences who’ll help you erect a six-foot barrier around your yard. It’s hard to have a conversation over one of those, and certainly doesn’t contribute to a sense of real neighbourliness. Personally, I prefer picket fences!

To all my readers, near and far, I wish you a joyful and restful holiday season, full of music, fresh air and love. And here’s to a neighbourly 2018!

Donna Macdonald served 19 years on Nelson City Council until 2014. She is the author of Surviving City Hall, published in 2016.

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