© Scott Lewis Photography
How much do you like your next-door neighbors? Enough to share your backyard with them?
A number of homeowners are bucking the notion that good fences make good neighbors by taking down the fences in favor of bigger gardens and more space to entertain.
Some are landscaping communally, turning a previously neglected corner into a shared garden and dining space. In one extreme case, three neighbors bought property and designed and built a multifamily compound that will serve them into retirement.
Togetherness, however, has its downsides; the potential for conflict is much greater than when people stay in their own backyards.
Gardening expenses can be split evenly, but who pulls the weeds and who gets to pick the fruit? Do you post a sign-up sheet for use of the communal table? Or is there an always-room-to-share policy? What happens when one neighbor wants to sell? Some people draw up legal contracts to prevent acrimony and spell out how they will disband.
"When the fences are up, you tend to hide in your garden from the other people. That is no longer possible here," says Bill Fidelo, 56, a garden designer in Brooklyn, N.Y. His backyard makes up one-third of an area created when the owners of three brownstone took down their fences.
'We'll collectively reap the harvest'
In Swarthmore, Pa., artist Clair Oaks, and her husband, Rob Oaks, a software architect, agreed to an unusual project in their backyard. Neighbor Andrew Bunting, a 48-year-old arboretum curator, put in a shared vegetable garden-cum-hangout space there.
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About a year ago, Bunting's partner, Carrie Wiles, talked about creating a vegetable garden and chicken coop, he says. Their property was filled with ornamental flower beds that they didn't want to disturb. They observed that the Oakses weren't really using the back of their lot.
So in January, Bunting says, he approached the couple with a landscape plan and proposed to "commandeer the back third of their yard," an area measuring about 100 feet wide by 45 feet deep.
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"I said, 'It will be a shared garden on your land. I'll install it, maintain it and we'll collectively reap the harvest,'" he says. He offered to pay rent. Clair Oaks said yes to the idea, declining the rent.
Bunting says he envisions that both families will share meals at a table with benches they plan to place in the center.
"I did think, 'What happens if they move?'" Bunting says. "But we had the discussion. They're not going anywhere, and I don't foresee us going anywhere."
What about fences?
Communal living does tend to give real-estate agents pause.
"Before I'd put this property on the market, they would have to have a legal document" spelling out ownership and rights, says Sandy Yeatman, a real-estate agent in Kennett Square, Pa.
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Yard-sharing is rare in new developments of single-family homes, big builders say. Privacy fences often are required under community covenants and building codes.
A shared yard could damp an individual home's value and prolong the time spent on the market, says Denise Shur, a San Jose, Calif., real-estate broker. When a fence isn't there, she says, "Potential buyers instantly start calculating the cost" to build one.
She says she would advise neighbors to restore fencing when either home is offered for sale. It is best to install the fence before listing the home, she says, because "some buyers will not want to be the bad new neighbor who required a fence."
Kimberly Williams, 38 and a director at a legal-services firm, shares Fidelo's yard. She says any decision to sell "would involve a conversation with Bill. Would he want me to put a fence back up before showing the house?" she says. "He might not want to share with someone who's totally new."
"It is something I have thought about a lot," says Fidelo, who designed Williams' garden and connected it to his own. His also connects to the yard of a third neighbor, Ken Druse, 62, a garden writer and photographer. "I've always known that this is something that might not last forever."
'Our lives are intertwined'
Three couples in Santa Barbara, Calif., created a communal residential property that will serve them into retirement. They designed and built the multidwelling compound with space for four families on a third of an acre in the historic El Pueblo Viejo District.
It took $7 million and five years of monthly decision-making meetings, plus three zoning variances and more than a dozen meetings with the city's historical planning commission, to realize their vision.
"Our lives are intertwined," says Dennis Allen, founder and chairman of Allen Associates, a Santa Barbara construction company.
The project began in 2006 when Allen and his wife, Jennie, contemplated retirement. They approached two couples they had worked with professionally — business-owner Devon Hartman and his wife, Mary; and Allen's business lawyer, Joe Bush and his wife, Kathy — with the idea to buy property and build.
Allen says the couples agreed it should be a "'green' living compound," within walking distance of town and with minimal use of energy and resources. They bought and refurbished a Victorian home and got zoning approval to build a second structure, a Mediterranean-style building with three residential units.
They formed a condominium association — a legal agreement that all six individuals signed and that governs maintenance and upkeep costs for common areas, which include 30 fruit trees, a vegetable garden, an art walk, a casual seating area and a dining table with seating for 12.
All six members voted against an outdoor grill.
"It's not very green," Joe Bush says.
The agreement evenly splits maintenance costs on home exteriors, the garage and common areas among the three couples.
If one couple decides to sell, the other two couples must approve of the buyer.
During construction, a separate binding agreement addressed how decisions would be made — by majority vote — and how the project, called Victoria Garden Mews, would be disbanded if relationships fell apart.
The Bushes moved into the Victorian in 2009, shortly after completion. The Allens moved into the new structure in 2011. The Hartmans expect to move in next year.
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Legal documents don't cover small things, such as division of chores or the fruits and vegetables that grow on the property.
There is an unspoken "open door policy," Allen says, describing it as "Tap on the door and walk in."
Bush says he doesn't mind when Allen comes by unannounced but generally prefers to give the Allens a heads-up before stopping by.
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"I don't think I'm as comfortable as they are" with showing up.
I grew up without fences, unless you had a dog. I grew up with no locked doors and neighbors stopping by just to say HI was not only accepted but encouraged. We didn't hide behind doors and fences and lock ourselves away from the world. We interacted. We seldom watched TV and preferred socializing than watching TV. When we were inside on winter days, it was still with friends, neighbors, family around to play games. We were never sedatary. I still love socializing and knowing my neighbors and watching out for each other. I can't imagine living in a neighborhood and not knowing my neighbors. That's a scary future to look forward to if we only have "friends" via a computer. The computer is a nice way to stay in touch with friends that live far away, but is no substitue for face to face interaction.
So don't be afraid to open the gates of the fences and get to know your neighbors.