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What drives San Diego neighbors crazy

Stolen Siamese cat in Carlsbad, dripping Torrey pine in La Jolla, Carlsbad chickens, Oceanside trampoline

People often don’t like each other, particularly if they live close together.
People often don’t like each other, particularly if they live close together.

Michael Vilkin owned a huge vacant lot in Olivenhain, right next to a house John Upton was renting. On the morning of March 28, 2013, Vilkin drove up to the 2.6-acre lot on Lone Jack Road to supervise day laborers he had hired to trim trees along an access path on his property. The path was adjacent to Upton’s rented home. Around 9 am, Upton came outside, spoke to the workers, and then walked toward Vilkin.

Vilkin pulled out a .44 caliber Magnum revolver and shot Upton twice, once in the abdomen and then again in the head. At Vilkin’s trial, the prosecutor said the killing came after many months of fighting between the two men. Vilkin kept cutting down trees and bushes on his property, which he hoped to one day develop. This angered Upton, because he liked the privacy the greenery provided him.


The vitriolic rhetoric and sniping on the Nextdoor social networking website has brought to the forefront a dirty little secret about neighborhoods: people often don’t like each other, particularly if they live close together. Launched just over ten years ago in October of 2011, Nextdoor had as its goal, according to its mission statement, to “bring neighbors together all over the world to build stronger communities, and ultimately happier and more meaningful lives.”

In theory, site users join hyperlocal groups to share neighborhood concerns and perhaps schedule in-person meet-ups. In reality, the topic threads almost invariably descend into nasty rants over barking dogs, kids on e-bikes, and the ethics of maintaining a green lawn during a drought. Nextdoor specifically prohibits the airing of “personal disputes and grievances,” maintaining “these should be resolved in person, or via private message.” That’s a good thing – because based on the name-calling and insults that typically follow even the most innocuous post, without the prohibition, the site would likely become nothing more than a verbal slugfest.

But while there is an argument to be made that people are often their worst selves online, thanks to relative anonymity and disconnection, what happens on Nextdoor might also be a reflection of how people really feel. A September 2021 study commissioned by Homes.com found that 36 percent of those polled have had issues with their neighbors that escalated into full-blown arguments, with a quarter stating that they have a long-running feud with someone living next to them.

According to the research, the most common reason for an argument is over parking, followed closely by barking dogs and other animal noises, loud music and other noise complaints, and “disputes over mess,” according to story on the study by the SWNS Media Group. “That might explain why over forty percent of Americans try to avoid their errant neighbors intentionally,” the article said. The study also found that sixteen percent of respondents have moved due to problems with a neighbor, with another twenty percent saying they are considering moving or have thought about it in the past.


According to court documents, Michael Vilkin bought the property at 2902 Lone Jack Road in 2008 with the intention of getting a construction loan and building on it. But by the time Upton moved in next door at 2916 Lone Jack Road in April of 2011, no work had been done. Upton began complaining to his landlord about the work Vilkin was doing on the still-vacant plot of land adjacent to his rented house, and eventually confronted Vilkin himself. According to the landlord’s testimony in court, “Upton pleaded with defendant to be finished clearing the lot. Upton suggested defendant obtain a permit and build on the lot, or sell it, but reiterated to defendant his constant cutting and chopping of shrubs on the lot was driving Upton ‘nuts.’”

A San Diego County sheriff’s deputy, Marshall Abbott, testified during Vilkin’s trial that on March 21, 2013, seven days before the killing, he was dispatched to the lot to meet with Vilkin. “Defendant told Deputy Abbott he felt ‘threatened’ by Upton,” according to court documents. “When Deputy Abbott asked defendant to provide examples of how Upton had threatened him, defendant stated that Upton had ‘yelled at him’ and that they had ‘some arguments about cutting down brush.’ Deputy Abbott testified that he did not consider such conduct by Upton to be a ‘criminal kind of threat’.” When Abbott next talked to Upton, according to court records, “defendant slowly approached and made a statement or comment that upset Upton. Upton in response stated, ‘Don’t come any closer to me, you fucking asshole,’ or words to that effect. Deputy Abbott defused the situation and reiterated both to Upton and defendant they should avoid anything physical and instead call him and/or the sheriff’s department.”

In court, Vilkin demonstrated lining up the sights on his gun to shoot his neighbor.

A week later, Upton was dead and Vilkin was in jail. Vilkin’s attorney said his client was afraid of Upton and that the shooting was in self defense. During his trial, Vilkin had said the way Upton looked at him during their periodic confrontations “would fry a hamburger.” But the prosecutor successfully argued that the killing was premeditated and a judge agreed, sentencing the 63-year-old Soviet immigrant to 64 years to life in prison. His fate was sealed by eyewitness testimony from Upton’s live-in girlfriend, Evelyn Zeller. According to court documents, at about 9 am on the day of the shooting, Zeller heard two “loud and sharp bangs” about five to seven seconds apart. “Initially, Zeller did not know they were gunshots,” according to a transcript.

“However, when she called out for Upton and got no response, she got a ‘doom feeling in [her] chest.’ Zeller testified she went outside and saw defendant about 25 feet away talking on his phone. When Zeller asked defendant what those sounds were, defendant acknowledged her and then walked behind some bushes out of sight. Zeller next saw two workers defendant had hired running down the street. Zeller in Spanish yelled, ‘What happened?’ One of the workers yelled back in English, ‘I don’t know, but it came from over there,’ while pointing up a path. When she walked up the path, Zeller saw Upton’s body lying on the ground. A few seconds later, she heard defendant say, ‘Don’t get any fucking closer.’ When she looked up, Zeller saw defendant standing about eight feet away, pointing a ‘big revolver’ at her. Defendant was holding a gun case in the other hand. Stunned, Zeller threw her hands into the air, waited, and then ran into the house.”


Neighborhood disputes that escalate into physical violence or, in extreme cases, death, are not as uncommon as one might think. Just this month, the 29-year-old son of celebrated basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was sent to jail for six months after pleading guilty to stabbing a neighbor in San Clemente in a row over trash cans. In April 2011, a 74-year-old San Diego man stabbed his 64-year-old neighbor in a fight that broke out after the older man said his kittens were being harassed by the younger man’s dog. The cat owner hit the dog owner in the face with a broomstick, then went back to his home, grabbed a knife, and came back to stab the victim once in the stomach, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In September 2018, a feud between two neighbors in the San Diego community of Encanto ended in violence when one man stabbed the other in the head, then fled the crime scene on a bicycle. The victim had been working on his car in front of his Bethany Street home, in the middle of the day, when the neighbor, who lived across the street, walked up, brandishing a knife, and stabbed him in the left side of the head.

In May 2020, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that a Rancho Peñasquitos man was arrested “after ambushing his neighbor with a knife as she unloaded groceries in her driveway, San Diego police said. The victim, 45, was outside her home on Meadowrun Street at about 11 am when her neighbor, armed with a large kitchen knife, approached her, police said. He then stabbed her in the stomach ‘for no apparent reason,’ police said. He returned home, where he was arrested without incident. The 61-year-old suspect admitted to the stabbing, police said.”

Evidence photo of the stone wall, which encroached 17 feet onto Vilkin’s land.

In October 2020, a squabble between two neighbors in Point Loma, on Bermuda Avenue near Santa Barbara Street, ended with one man hospitalized with stab wounds, according to San Diego police. Shortly after 10:30 at night, the suspect walked to a neighboring house to complain about water flowing into his yard. The victim opened the door holding what appeared to be a rifle and fired a shot; the suspect ducked and pushed the barrel up and then stabbed the second man several times with a pocketknife. When police arrived, victim was “bleeding out pretty badly,” according to police Sergeant Allan Butchart. Police said the “rifle” was actually a BB gun.

Just last July, a Valley Center man named Vincent Meraz was arrested after police said he fired a round from a pellet gun into a neighbor’s car over a parking dispute. Deputies said the dispute was ongoing; after the victim again parked his car near Meraz’s home, another argument ensued. As the victim was attempting to move his car, deputies told Fox 5, Meraz walked up to the vehicle and fired a round, which shattered its rear passenger side window.

Neighborhood squabbles that lead to violence typically tend to get the biggest play in the media. But almost as likely to generate headlines are neighborhood disputes that tug at the heartstrings. Last December, local media went agog over a neighborhood dispute in Clairemont over a lost kitten. A woman named Kirstin Miceli had bought her kids a Siamese cat earlier in the year to help them cope with the pandemic. They named the kitten “Ghost.” In September, Ghost disappeared, and the children were heartbroken. The family searched the neighborhood and put up flyers, but no luck. Then, in December, a neighbor spotted a cat that looked like Ghost in the window of a house around the corner. Miceli went to the house for a look, and sure enough, it was Ghost. But the neighbor refused to give the cat back. Miceli called police, who refused to get involved since Ghost wasn’t actually taken. She called the news media. Channel 8 sent a reporter to the home where Ghost was living. According to a report from the TV station, “News 8 tried to speak with the family that now has the kitten. A man inside didn’t open the door, but did yell from inside, ‘This is a cat that came to my home that I tried to take care of.’ He added that he’ll deal with all of this in court. In the meantime, neighbors who heard about the story through the Nextdoor website rallied...outside his home, hoping the public pressure would convince him to change his mind. So far, it hasn’t worked.” I reached out to Miceli via email to see if the cat had ever been returned, but never heard back.


Craig Sherman has been practicing civil law in San Diego since 1994. He says he receives a large volume of calls from people asking for legal advice about a troublesome neighbor, and gets involved “in some form or another” in about half of them. “It’s as much psycho logical counseling as it is legal counseling,” he says, noting that he goes through a whole “scale” of potential solutions, from knocking on a neighbor’s door to “scorched-earth litigation” or even moving away. “There are so many factors. Sometimes, the best approach is to talk to the neighbor and see if you can resolve the problem on your own, while in other cases, I might be retained to write a letter or work out some mediation. Litigation is a big step: you can’t litigate even the smallest case for less than $15,000 or $30,000. Once you dip your toe in the water you’ve got to be prepared to go all the way.”

Sherman winds up getting involved in some fashion with up to 100 cases a year. Most of them involve protracted noise or other nuisance complaints. Drainage issues or erosion are common problems, given San Diego’s varied topography and the differing elevations among homes in the same housing tract. “When one property is above or below the other, you sometimes get an inferiority or superiority complex come into play,” he says. Mediation or a letter is often enough, Sherman maintains, but from time to time things heat up to the point where litigation or moving are the only options.

One case that did wind up in court was between a “regular blue-collar worker” and the elderly woman who lived next door to him in Encanto. Sherman says he doesn’t remember what triggered the animosity, but the woman began harassing the man in myriad ways. “She’d run the hose for long periods of time and flood his yard, drag her garbage cans back and forth in the very early morning for no purposes. She even mounted windchimes on a pole at the same height as his bedroom window. All she would say was that he would stare her down. We went through a full-blown trial that lasted four days, and in the end we prevailed: some monetary damages and an injunction to stop doing those things.”

For noise complaints, conventional wisdom dictates calling the police or code enforcement, but that doesn’t always work, Sherman says. “It’s prosecutorial prerogative,” he says. “Sometimes they enforce code violations, and sometimes they don’t. I’ve had cases in which they are positively ruthless, and others where they just won’t touch it.”

Sherman says he frequently deals with callers who complain about a neighbor with a noisy sports car or motorcycle. “One man’s sports car pleasure can be another man’s nightmare. I had one case in which a man complained that his neighbor had a Harley, and every day he got up early, around 5:30 am, and started the bike. It was so loud it woke up his kids. I can see where that can be a nuisance, but is it enforceable? I don’t know. Does society accept a loud motorcycle starting up at 5:30 am for 40 seconds as reasonable, particularly if the guy is just getting up and going to work and that’s his transportation? It’s never an easy claim to prove.”

Sherman says he occasionally encounters what he calls “dangerous cases,” in which there’s potential gun or gang activity. “Maybe there’s a lot of noise coming from a certain house on the block, or incessant parties. I always advise callers that you need to Know Thy Neighbor — know who they are, evaluate them and what their reaction might be. If somebody’s a fighter, or has been in a lot of lawsuits, you can pretty much predict what the results are going to be if you knock on their door or write a letter.”

Craig Sherman receives a large volume of calls, up to 100 or so per year, from people asking for legal advice about a troublesome neighbor, and gets involved “in some form or another” in about half of them.

In extreme cases, moving away from the problem neighbor might be the best solution. “I usually recommend that option when you might be able to stop a certain behavior through an injunction, but you can never get rid of the person, and that person’s never going to change — he’s a bad apple, a bad guy. In those situations, no matter what the law might provide, for your own peace of mind and enjoyment of your property, you ought to consider that option.”


Sherman says that since covid-19, he’s seen a significant uptick in complaints about bad neighbors. The pandemic saw a surge in people working at home, which put them in direct contact with annoyances that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. “I had one couple who, as soon as they began working at home, had a neighbor put up a trampoline for his kids — and their friends,” Sherman says. “They’re handling a busy schedule and conference calls, and there’s all these kids jumping up and down and yelling and laughing and just being kids right outside their window. It’s a serious, legitimate concern.” Sherman said he advised the caller to knock on the neighbors’ door and ask them to move the trampoline to the other side of the yard. He’s not sure what the outcome was, but says, “I never heard back. This was one case I did not wind up litigating.”

Neighborhood disputes tend to be very emotional, Jerry Hemme says. “They’re as bad as a divorce.”

Jerry Hemme is a managing partner with the San Diego law firm of Good | Hemme. He’s just celebrated his 40th anniversary as an attorney specializing in real estate litigation, with an emphasis on boundary disputes. He agrees with Sherman that the pandemic has triggered “an uptick” in neighborhood dispute cases. “It seems like I always have at least four, five, six of them at any one time, in varying stages of being resolved,” he says. “The cases that come to be me usually have to do with boundary lines, and that can be a number of issues: problems caused by trees, encroachments being built on someone else’s property, sometimes related to water, and occasional noise issues, generally from someone living on top or on the bottom of a condominium.”

Neighborhood disputes tend to be very emotional, Hemme says. “They’re as bad as a divorce. And when you think about it, when you finish your work day and deal with the stresses of life, your home really is your castle, that place of safety and comfort, where you go to unwind and relax. When that home becomes a battleground, you no longer have a place to retire and relax and be safe from the outside world. You look outside and you see your neighbor and you’re reminded of the bastard who lives next door.” He pauses, then adds, “I think it’s our pioneer spirit — ‘It’s my land, it’s my home.’ If you think about it, every war that’s ever been fought has been over land or religion, so it’s in our culture to fight to protect our property.”

Hemme says one of his most memorable cases involved a wealthy woman in a red-leather suit who was set off by sap dripping from a neighboring Torrey Pine tree. “It was in La Jolla, right on Torrey Pines Road, in the early 2000s. There was this big old Torrey Pine, and more than a third of it hung over the neighboring property. It was probably eighty, one hundred years old. It dropped lots of needles and pine cones, but the next door neighbor didn’t care. My client had maintained the tree for 25 years without a complaint.  But then a buyer bought the neighbor’s property, tore down the old ranch-style house and built this huge three-story house in its place, with nice big balconies. She was having a party and leaned up against the railing of one of her balconies and wound up getting sap on her red-leather outfit. And that was enough to really set her off. My client had just trimmed the tree, which caused the tree to drip sap.  She filed a lawsuit to have the tree branches trimmed back to the property line, but most arborists will tell you that cutting more than a third of the crown will likely cause [the tree] excessive stress and risk its health. In defense, we claimed that our client had acquired a prescriptive to drop the pine needles, pine cones and sap on her property.” (A prescriptive easement occurs if you use someone’s property openly, notoriously, and continuously in a hostile manner for five or more years. For example, if a person walks across your lawn on a regular basis without your consent, the person is a trespasser.  However, if the person does so without consent for five or more years, the person may have acquired a prescriptive easement to the path.)

Hemme and his client prevailed. “The fun part was, I brought the jury and the judge out to look at the tree, and the judge looked at it and said, ‘I don’t think I’d want to have that tree taken down.’ So my clients were awarded a prescriptive easement, which gave them the right to keep the tree there, and we didn’t have to remove it or even trim it.”


Tanya Cornwell is a 53-year-old family therapist from Carlsbad who used to live next door to what she calls “a chicken lady” in a quiet residential tract of modest homes that had been built in the 1970s on large lots carved from a former tomato field. “When her husband died, she decided to turn her backyard into a farm,” Cornwell says. “She started growing blackberries and selling them at the local farmers market, and then she got a few chickens, maybe five, and a little chicken coop. Well, she became a chicken addict. She ended up with well over 45 chickens, and she got this rooster that crowed all the time, and she would breed chickens and hatch their eggs and she kept building chicken coops all over her backyard. Some of them were literally ten feet from my kitchen window. She just went overboard with this, and the neighbors started complaining, and she became more and more defiant. She had these huge mulch piles on her driveway, and she had people coming to her house all the time to buy eggs, and we’re just this little suburban neighborhood...”

Cornwell and her neighbors got the city involved. “Under Carlsbad law, chicken coops need to be at least forty feet from a neighboring house, so ten feet from my kitchen window is not OK,” Cornwell says. “Anyhow, she was violating all these codes and the city kept citing her and fining her, so finally she moved her chicken coops to the center of her property.” But there were other problems. “She had this broken fountain she put in the front yard that became a mosquito breeding ground, and then she got these two pitbulls that she kept unleashed, and one day they charged me. She was ruining everyone’s property values — everybody has these nicely landscaped yards, and she had that fountain and mulch and, for a while, even a porta-potty in her front yard. One neighbor ended up building a big wall along his property line, even along the driveway, just to block the view of her house.” Was the matter ever fully resolved? “I have no idea,” Cornwell says. “I moved out last August.”

Lisa Gilbert got a restraining order against her neighbor. “We had a trampoline in the backyard, and my daughter would go out there with her friends, and this woman would literally yell over the fence, ‘Stop jumping – if you don’t stop jumping I’m going to break your knee caps!’”

Lisa Gilbert, an elementary school principal who lives in Oceanside, says she went through a rough patch with a neighbor several years ago when her kids were little. “We were in Ivy Ranch, a small gated community, and the houses are close together — more so than in the average neighborhood,” she says. “We moved there in 2006, and it was all families with kids — except for one neighbor, a woman whose name was also Lisa. She was OK for a while, but once the kids started going outside, she became a nightmare. We had a trampoline in the backyard, and my daughter would go out there with her friends, and this woman would literally yell over the fence, ‘Stop jumping – if you don’t stop jumping I’m going to break your knee caps!’ Just horrible threats.

One time, Julia, my daughter, was out front, where we had a portable basketball hoop, and the woman yelled at her. I wasn’t home, but as soon as I got home and Julia told me what happened I went to her house. She was in the garage, and she was screaming back at me and coming at me with a small saw. That was when I said, ‘That’s it,’ and I got a restraining order the next day.” There were no further problems, Gilbert said, and eventually, the other Lisa moved away.

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People often don’t like each other, particularly if they live close together.
People often don’t like each other, particularly if they live close together.

Michael Vilkin owned a huge vacant lot in Olivenhain, right next to a house John Upton was renting. On the morning of March 28, 2013, Vilkin drove up to the 2.6-acre lot on Lone Jack Road to supervise day laborers he had hired to trim trees along an access path on his property. The path was adjacent to Upton’s rented home. Around 9 am, Upton came outside, spoke to the workers, and then walked toward Vilkin.

Vilkin pulled out a .44 caliber Magnum revolver and shot Upton twice, once in the abdomen and then again in the head. At Vilkin’s trial, the prosecutor said the killing came after many months of fighting between the two men. Vilkin kept cutting down trees and bushes on his property, which he hoped to one day develop. This angered Upton, because he liked the privacy the greenery provided him.


The vitriolic rhetoric and sniping on the Nextdoor social networking website has brought to the forefront a dirty little secret about neighborhoods: people often don’t like each other, particularly if they live close together. Launched just over ten years ago in October of 2011, Nextdoor had as its goal, according to its mission statement, to “bring neighbors together all over the world to build stronger communities, and ultimately happier and more meaningful lives.”

In theory, site users join hyperlocal groups to share neighborhood concerns and perhaps schedule in-person meet-ups. In reality, the topic threads almost invariably descend into nasty rants over barking dogs, kids on e-bikes, and the ethics of maintaining a green lawn during a drought. Nextdoor specifically prohibits the airing of “personal disputes and grievances,” maintaining “these should be resolved in person, or via private message.” That’s a good thing – because based on the name-calling and insults that typically follow even the most innocuous post, without the prohibition, the site would likely become nothing more than a verbal slugfest.

But while there is an argument to be made that people are often their worst selves online, thanks to relative anonymity and disconnection, what happens on Nextdoor might also be a reflection of how people really feel. A September 2021 study commissioned by Homes.com found that 36 percent of those polled have had issues with their neighbors that escalated into full-blown arguments, with a quarter stating that they have a long-running feud with someone living next to them.

According to the research, the most common reason for an argument is over parking, followed closely by barking dogs and other animal noises, loud music and other noise complaints, and “disputes over mess,” according to story on the study by the SWNS Media Group. “That might explain why over forty percent of Americans try to avoid their errant neighbors intentionally,” the article said. The study also found that sixteen percent of respondents have moved due to problems with a neighbor, with another twenty percent saying they are considering moving or have thought about it in the past.


According to court documents, Michael Vilkin bought the property at 2902 Lone Jack Road in 2008 with the intention of getting a construction loan and building on it. But by the time Upton moved in next door at 2916 Lone Jack Road in April of 2011, no work had been done. Upton began complaining to his landlord about the work Vilkin was doing on the still-vacant plot of land adjacent to his rented house, and eventually confronted Vilkin himself. According to the landlord’s testimony in court, “Upton pleaded with defendant to be finished clearing the lot. Upton suggested defendant obtain a permit and build on the lot, or sell it, but reiterated to defendant his constant cutting and chopping of shrubs on the lot was driving Upton ‘nuts.’”

A San Diego County sheriff’s deputy, Marshall Abbott, testified during Vilkin’s trial that on March 21, 2013, seven days before the killing, he was dispatched to the lot to meet with Vilkin. “Defendant told Deputy Abbott he felt ‘threatened’ by Upton,” according to court documents. “When Deputy Abbott asked defendant to provide examples of how Upton had threatened him, defendant stated that Upton had ‘yelled at him’ and that they had ‘some arguments about cutting down brush.’ Deputy Abbott testified that he did not consider such conduct by Upton to be a ‘criminal kind of threat’.” When Abbott next talked to Upton, according to court records, “defendant slowly approached and made a statement or comment that upset Upton. Upton in response stated, ‘Don’t come any closer to me, you fucking asshole,’ or words to that effect. Deputy Abbott defused the situation and reiterated both to Upton and defendant they should avoid anything physical and instead call him and/or the sheriff’s department.”

In court, Vilkin demonstrated lining up the sights on his gun to shoot his neighbor.

A week later, Upton was dead and Vilkin was in jail. Vilkin’s attorney said his client was afraid of Upton and that the shooting was in self defense. During his trial, Vilkin had said the way Upton looked at him during their periodic confrontations “would fry a hamburger.” But the prosecutor successfully argued that the killing was premeditated and a judge agreed, sentencing the 63-year-old Soviet immigrant to 64 years to life in prison. His fate was sealed by eyewitness testimony from Upton’s live-in girlfriend, Evelyn Zeller. According to court documents, at about 9 am on the day of the shooting, Zeller heard two “loud and sharp bangs” about five to seven seconds apart. “Initially, Zeller did not know they were gunshots,” according to a transcript.

“However, when she called out for Upton and got no response, she got a ‘doom feeling in [her] chest.’ Zeller testified she went outside and saw defendant about 25 feet away talking on his phone. When Zeller asked defendant what those sounds were, defendant acknowledged her and then walked behind some bushes out of sight. Zeller next saw two workers defendant had hired running down the street. Zeller in Spanish yelled, ‘What happened?’ One of the workers yelled back in English, ‘I don’t know, but it came from over there,’ while pointing up a path. When she walked up the path, Zeller saw Upton’s body lying on the ground. A few seconds later, she heard defendant say, ‘Don’t get any fucking closer.’ When she looked up, Zeller saw defendant standing about eight feet away, pointing a ‘big revolver’ at her. Defendant was holding a gun case in the other hand. Stunned, Zeller threw her hands into the air, waited, and then ran into the house.”


Neighborhood disputes that escalate into physical violence or, in extreme cases, death, are not as uncommon as one might think. Just this month, the 29-year-old son of celebrated basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was sent to jail for six months after pleading guilty to stabbing a neighbor in San Clemente in a row over trash cans. In April 2011, a 74-year-old San Diego man stabbed his 64-year-old neighbor in a fight that broke out after the older man said his kittens were being harassed by the younger man’s dog. The cat owner hit the dog owner in the face with a broomstick, then went back to his home, grabbed a knife, and came back to stab the victim once in the stomach, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In September 2018, a feud between two neighbors in the San Diego community of Encanto ended in violence when one man stabbed the other in the head, then fled the crime scene on a bicycle. The victim had been working on his car in front of his Bethany Street home, in the middle of the day, when the neighbor, who lived across the street, walked up, brandishing a knife, and stabbed him in the left side of the head.

In May 2020, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that a Rancho Peñasquitos man was arrested “after ambushing his neighbor with a knife as she unloaded groceries in her driveway, San Diego police said. The victim, 45, was outside her home on Meadowrun Street at about 11 am when her neighbor, armed with a large kitchen knife, approached her, police said. He then stabbed her in the stomach ‘for no apparent reason,’ police said. He returned home, where he was arrested without incident. The 61-year-old suspect admitted to the stabbing, police said.”

Evidence photo of the stone wall, which encroached 17 feet onto Vilkin’s land.

In October 2020, a squabble between two neighbors in Point Loma, on Bermuda Avenue near Santa Barbara Street, ended with one man hospitalized with stab wounds, according to San Diego police. Shortly after 10:30 at night, the suspect walked to a neighboring house to complain about water flowing into his yard. The victim opened the door holding what appeared to be a rifle and fired a shot; the suspect ducked and pushed the barrel up and then stabbed the second man several times with a pocketknife. When police arrived, victim was “bleeding out pretty badly,” according to police Sergeant Allan Butchart. Police said the “rifle” was actually a BB gun.

Just last July, a Valley Center man named Vincent Meraz was arrested after police said he fired a round from a pellet gun into a neighbor’s car over a parking dispute. Deputies said the dispute was ongoing; after the victim again parked his car near Meraz’s home, another argument ensued. As the victim was attempting to move his car, deputies told Fox 5, Meraz walked up to the vehicle and fired a round, which shattered its rear passenger side window.

Neighborhood squabbles that lead to violence typically tend to get the biggest play in the media. But almost as likely to generate headlines are neighborhood disputes that tug at the heartstrings. Last December, local media went agog over a neighborhood dispute in Clairemont over a lost kitten. A woman named Kirstin Miceli had bought her kids a Siamese cat earlier in the year to help them cope with the pandemic. They named the kitten “Ghost.” In September, Ghost disappeared, and the children were heartbroken. The family searched the neighborhood and put up flyers, but no luck. Then, in December, a neighbor spotted a cat that looked like Ghost in the window of a house around the corner. Miceli went to the house for a look, and sure enough, it was Ghost. But the neighbor refused to give the cat back. Miceli called police, who refused to get involved since Ghost wasn’t actually taken. She called the news media. Channel 8 sent a reporter to the home where Ghost was living. According to a report from the TV station, “News 8 tried to speak with the family that now has the kitten. A man inside didn’t open the door, but did yell from inside, ‘This is a cat that came to my home that I tried to take care of.’ He added that he’ll deal with all of this in court. In the meantime, neighbors who heard about the story through the Nextdoor website rallied...outside his home, hoping the public pressure would convince him to change his mind. So far, it hasn’t worked.” I reached out to Miceli via email to see if the cat had ever been returned, but never heard back.


Craig Sherman has been practicing civil law in San Diego since 1994. He says he receives a large volume of calls from people asking for legal advice about a troublesome neighbor, and gets involved “in some form or another” in about half of them. “It’s as much psycho logical counseling as it is legal counseling,” he says, noting that he goes through a whole “scale” of potential solutions, from knocking on a neighbor’s door to “scorched-earth litigation” or even moving away. “There are so many factors. Sometimes, the best approach is to talk to the neighbor and see if you can resolve the problem on your own, while in other cases, I might be retained to write a letter or work out some mediation. Litigation is a big step: you can’t litigate even the smallest case for less than $15,000 or $30,000. Once you dip your toe in the water you’ve got to be prepared to go all the way.”

Sherman winds up getting involved in some fashion with up to 100 cases a year. Most of them involve protracted noise or other nuisance complaints. Drainage issues or erosion are common problems, given San Diego’s varied topography and the differing elevations among homes in the same housing tract. “When one property is above or below the other, you sometimes get an inferiority or superiority complex come into play,” he says. Mediation or a letter is often enough, Sherman maintains, but from time to time things heat up to the point where litigation or moving are the only options.

One case that did wind up in court was between a “regular blue-collar worker” and the elderly woman who lived next door to him in Encanto. Sherman says he doesn’t remember what triggered the animosity, but the woman began harassing the man in myriad ways. “She’d run the hose for long periods of time and flood his yard, drag her garbage cans back and forth in the very early morning for no purposes. She even mounted windchimes on a pole at the same height as his bedroom window. All she would say was that he would stare her down. We went through a full-blown trial that lasted four days, and in the end we prevailed: some monetary damages and an injunction to stop doing those things.”

For noise complaints, conventional wisdom dictates calling the police or code enforcement, but that doesn’t always work, Sherman says. “It’s prosecutorial prerogative,” he says. “Sometimes they enforce code violations, and sometimes they don’t. I’ve had cases in which they are positively ruthless, and others where they just won’t touch it.”

Sherman says he frequently deals with callers who complain about a neighbor with a noisy sports car or motorcycle. “One man’s sports car pleasure can be another man’s nightmare. I had one case in which a man complained that his neighbor had a Harley, and every day he got up early, around 5:30 am, and started the bike. It was so loud it woke up his kids. I can see where that can be a nuisance, but is it enforceable? I don’t know. Does society accept a loud motorcycle starting up at 5:30 am for 40 seconds as reasonable, particularly if the guy is just getting up and going to work and that’s his transportation? It’s never an easy claim to prove.”

Sherman says he occasionally encounters what he calls “dangerous cases,” in which there’s potential gun or gang activity. “Maybe there’s a lot of noise coming from a certain house on the block, or incessant parties. I always advise callers that you need to Know Thy Neighbor — know who they are, evaluate them and what their reaction might be. If somebody’s a fighter, or has been in a lot of lawsuits, you can pretty much predict what the results are going to be if you knock on their door or write a letter.”

Craig Sherman receives a large volume of calls, up to 100 or so per year, from people asking for legal advice about a troublesome neighbor, and gets involved “in some form or another” in about half of them.

In extreme cases, moving away from the problem neighbor might be the best solution. “I usually recommend that option when you might be able to stop a certain behavior through an injunction, but you can never get rid of the person, and that person’s never going to change — he’s a bad apple, a bad guy. In those situations, no matter what the law might provide, for your own peace of mind and enjoyment of your property, you ought to consider that option.”


Sherman says that since covid-19, he’s seen a significant uptick in complaints about bad neighbors. The pandemic saw a surge in people working at home, which put them in direct contact with annoyances that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. “I had one couple who, as soon as they began working at home, had a neighbor put up a trampoline for his kids — and their friends,” Sherman says. “They’re handling a busy schedule and conference calls, and there’s all these kids jumping up and down and yelling and laughing and just being kids right outside their window. It’s a serious, legitimate concern.” Sherman said he advised the caller to knock on the neighbors’ door and ask them to move the trampoline to the other side of the yard. He’s not sure what the outcome was, but says, “I never heard back. This was one case I did not wind up litigating.”

Neighborhood disputes tend to be very emotional, Jerry Hemme says. “They’re as bad as a divorce.”

Jerry Hemme is a managing partner with the San Diego law firm of Good | Hemme. He’s just celebrated his 40th anniversary as an attorney specializing in real estate litigation, with an emphasis on boundary disputes. He agrees with Sherman that the pandemic has triggered “an uptick” in neighborhood dispute cases. “It seems like I always have at least four, five, six of them at any one time, in varying stages of being resolved,” he says. “The cases that come to be me usually have to do with boundary lines, and that can be a number of issues: problems caused by trees, encroachments being built on someone else’s property, sometimes related to water, and occasional noise issues, generally from someone living on top or on the bottom of a condominium.”

Neighborhood disputes tend to be very emotional, Hemme says. “They’re as bad as a divorce. And when you think about it, when you finish your work day and deal with the stresses of life, your home really is your castle, that place of safety and comfort, where you go to unwind and relax. When that home becomes a battleground, you no longer have a place to retire and relax and be safe from the outside world. You look outside and you see your neighbor and you’re reminded of the bastard who lives next door.” He pauses, then adds, “I think it’s our pioneer spirit — ‘It’s my land, it’s my home.’ If you think about it, every war that’s ever been fought has been over land or religion, so it’s in our culture to fight to protect our property.”

Hemme says one of his most memorable cases involved a wealthy woman in a red-leather suit who was set off by sap dripping from a neighboring Torrey Pine tree. “It was in La Jolla, right on Torrey Pines Road, in the early 2000s. There was this big old Torrey Pine, and more than a third of it hung over the neighboring property. It was probably eighty, one hundred years old. It dropped lots of needles and pine cones, but the next door neighbor didn’t care. My client had maintained the tree for 25 years without a complaint.  But then a buyer bought the neighbor’s property, tore down the old ranch-style house and built this huge three-story house in its place, with nice big balconies. She was having a party and leaned up against the railing of one of her balconies and wound up getting sap on her red-leather outfit. And that was enough to really set her off. My client had just trimmed the tree, which caused the tree to drip sap.  She filed a lawsuit to have the tree branches trimmed back to the property line, but most arborists will tell you that cutting more than a third of the crown will likely cause [the tree] excessive stress and risk its health. In defense, we claimed that our client had acquired a prescriptive to drop the pine needles, pine cones and sap on her property.” (A prescriptive easement occurs if you use someone’s property openly, notoriously, and continuously in a hostile manner for five or more years. For example, if a person walks across your lawn on a regular basis without your consent, the person is a trespasser.  However, if the person does so without consent for five or more years, the person may have acquired a prescriptive easement to the path.)

Hemme and his client prevailed. “The fun part was, I brought the jury and the judge out to look at the tree, and the judge looked at it and said, ‘I don’t think I’d want to have that tree taken down.’ So my clients were awarded a prescriptive easement, which gave them the right to keep the tree there, and we didn’t have to remove it or even trim it.”


Tanya Cornwell is a 53-year-old family therapist from Carlsbad who used to live next door to what she calls “a chicken lady” in a quiet residential tract of modest homes that had been built in the 1970s on large lots carved from a former tomato field. “When her husband died, she decided to turn her backyard into a farm,” Cornwell says. “She started growing blackberries and selling them at the local farmers market, and then she got a few chickens, maybe five, and a little chicken coop. Well, she became a chicken addict. She ended up with well over 45 chickens, and she got this rooster that crowed all the time, and she would breed chickens and hatch their eggs and she kept building chicken coops all over her backyard. Some of them were literally ten feet from my kitchen window. She just went overboard with this, and the neighbors started complaining, and she became more and more defiant. She had these huge mulch piles on her driveway, and she had people coming to her house all the time to buy eggs, and we’re just this little suburban neighborhood...”

Cornwell and her neighbors got the city involved. “Under Carlsbad law, chicken coops need to be at least forty feet from a neighboring house, so ten feet from my kitchen window is not OK,” Cornwell says. “Anyhow, she was violating all these codes and the city kept citing her and fining her, so finally she moved her chicken coops to the center of her property.” But there were other problems. “She had this broken fountain she put in the front yard that became a mosquito breeding ground, and then she got these two pitbulls that she kept unleashed, and one day they charged me. She was ruining everyone’s property values — everybody has these nicely landscaped yards, and she had that fountain and mulch and, for a while, even a porta-potty in her front yard. One neighbor ended up building a big wall along his property line, even along the driveway, just to block the view of her house.” Was the matter ever fully resolved? “I have no idea,” Cornwell says. “I moved out last August.”

Lisa Gilbert got a restraining order against her neighbor. “We had a trampoline in the backyard, and my daughter would go out there with her friends, and this woman would literally yell over the fence, ‘Stop jumping – if you don’t stop jumping I’m going to break your knee caps!’”

Lisa Gilbert, an elementary school principal who lives in Oceanside, says she went through a rough patch with a neighbor several years ago when her kids were little. “We were in Ivy Ranch, a small gated community, and the houses are close together — more so than in the average neighborhood,” she says. “We moved there in 2006, and it was all families with kids — except for one neighbor, a woman whose name was also Lisa. She was OK for a while, but once the kids started going outside, she became a nightmare. We had a trampoline in the backyard, and my daughter would go out there with her friends, and this woman would literally yell over the fence, ‘Stop jumping – if you don’t stop jumping I’m going to break your knee caps!’ Just horrible threats.

One time, Julia, my daughter, was out front, where we had a portable basketball hoop, and the woman yelled at her. I wasn’t home, but as soon as I got home and Julia told me what happened I went to her house. She was in the garage, and she was screaming back at me and coming at me with a small saw. That was when I said, ‘That’s it,’ and I got a restraining order the next day.” There were no further problems, Gilbert said, and eventually, the other Lisa moved away.

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Most people easily get along with their neighbors. If you can't get along with your neighbors, you need to grow up.

Dec. 30, 2021

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