At the end of November, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Robert Punnet handed down an award of $35,150 to Beth Gibson, the former mayor of Colwood, as a result of a dispute dating back to 2011 between Gibson, F.K. Developments, and a neighbour, Fritz Kruger (who was involved with the development the company developing the properties neighbouring on Gibson’s home).
The dispute centred upon Kruger taking it upon himself to remove the tops of mature Douglas fir trees on Gibson’s property, without permission, in order to improve the view for his own properties.
And as much as Gibson now wishes to put the entire unpleasant debacle behind her, the details of her particular case serve to raise questions about how often this sort of dispute arises and what can be done to restore peace when, as they did in Gibson’s case, circumstances and attitudes seem destined to spiral out of control.
Const. Matthew Baker of the West Shore RCMP maintains that dispute resolution is all about empathy.
“It’s important not to dig your heels in and, instead, try to understand the other person’s position and what it is they’re upset about,” Baker said. “When they get to the point where they won’t talk to one another, that’s when disputes start escalating. By the time one or the other starts calling the police, I would guess that everything else has failed.”
Baker explained that he doesn’t see a lot of incidents where the police are called to get involved, and when they are, they generally find that there is no criminal cause for a complaint.
“These are generally civil matters and more suited for mediation or legal action than calling the police,” he said.
Susan Belford, administrative director of the Colwood non-profit group, Dialogue and Mediation Services, agreed that most of the cases they see stem from people being unwilling to communicate.
“As human beings we tend to want to believe that we’re right. We look at things from our own perspective, often losing sight of the fact that the other party has their own perspective and equally believe that they are in the right,” Belford said.
“Most often you’ll find that both parties want the same thing and, if you can get them talking, they’ll find a way to find a middle ground but the key is the willingness to negotiate. Finding a solution through mediation can only happen if there is a willingness to voluntarily work with the other party.”
Sometimes disputes result from issues that have nothing to do with the stated point of dispute, according to City of Colwood bylaw officer Paul Lambert.
Lambert has been in his position for 10 years, having come from the UK and Australia where he worked as a police constable.
“I find that we’ll get a call and find that there’s really something else going on that has nothing to do with the issue they call about. Maybe they’re upset about the fact that a neighbour has a trailer in the driveway and, since that isn’t illegal, they focus on whether a fence is slightly encroaching on a property line,” Lambert said.
“I’ve seen people lose their minds over six inches of property and spend thousands of dollar litigating an issue that could have been resolved with some reasonable conversation.”
But sometimes, said Lambert, neighbours have legitimate concerns and part of his job is to explain the problem to the offending party.
“I remember getting a call about a powerful stench coming from a property. I arrived to find a gentleman in the backyard, incinerating dead rats (he’d trapped) and the smell was horrendous…so much so that he was stark naked, not wanting to get the smell of the burning rats on his clothing,” recalled Lambert with a chuckle.
“With all of that, he seemed genuinely surprised that the neighbours had complained.”