My neighbor's building an ugly retaining wall

thane(z8 Bellevue, WA)October 27, 2007

My neighbor just started building an ugly retaining wall out of plain concrete blocks. I'm worried it's going to be an eyesore, and I'm also a bit concerned that it's slightly on my side of the property line. I'm not sure how much fuss to make when it might be 6" or 1', and I'm not even sure exactly where the property line is.

Furthermore, while he's working out there, he's trampling all over the soil around my recently-planted mock orange and wax myrtle. I just went out and told him I was concerned about too much foot traffic around my new shrubs, and he kind of blew me off, saying something like "Well, there's not much access here." I felt like telling him he can't come on my property at all anymore, but I don't want to damage neighbor relations.

It seems like it'll take a professional survey to determine with real accuracy where the property line is, and that's over $1,000. I'm also planning to investigate whether there are any building codes in Bellevue that specify that a retaining wall has to be a certain distance back from a property line.

Any advice on this situation? Any similar experiences?


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pianojuggler(z8b WA)

Well, slightly similar experience. I have a rock retaining wall that is about six inches on my side of the property line. My neighbor plants stuff right up to the base of the rockery, but I remind him once a year or so that some of his plants are on my side of the line.

You are right -- the only way to know for sure is to get the line surveyed and marked. You really need to do this to ensure you have control over your property. If you explicity tell your neighbor that he is not welcome on your side of the line, he is trespassing. If he builds the wall on your side of the line, you have the legal right to remove it.

It is a tough balancing act between being a nice neighbor and looking out for your rights. Since he already blew you off when you asked him (politely, I assume) not to trample your plantings, he may have already dismissed any pretense of being neighborly.

Here's what I would do: Go out and ask him to stop building the wall, since you do not know whose property it's on. Tell him you want him to have the line surveyed (hey, he wants the wall, he can pay to have it marked). When he makes a stink, offer to pay a portion of the cost.

If you know a surveyor, or want to do some digging at city hall, you can probably get a current plat map showing where the line is and any markers -- you may be able to suss out where the property corner is within a few inches. All of these are available online, but I think they are only available to surveyors.

In my case, there was already a marker (a long steel pin in the ground with a plastic cap on it) at the property corner. The surveyor just had to dig around a bit to find it, because the neighbor had covered it over with dirt and dahlias.

The problem is that on a hill, it's hard to measure straight level lines with just a tape measure, so if you know that there is a monument in the street (look for a small metal cover with the letters "MON" on it) that is 50 feet from the property corner, you need to do some geometry to figure out where the point is on the ground. All measurements are made as if the ground is flat, but if he's building a retaining wall, I assume that your terrain isn't flat!

Unfortunately, if he insists on continuing you are faced with the following options: Directly tell him that he is trespassing. Take photos (with a film camera if you have one, not a digital), or even better, a videotape of him trespassing. Call the police. Contact a lawyer.

If you are inside the city of Bellevue, there is a rule (law? guideline?) that you MUST attempt to resolve disputes with a neighbor through the Bellevue Mediation Process before you can sue. I was far enough into the process that I had contacted the Mediation Office and they had contacted the neighbor before he decided to cooperate.

One problem I have had with the City of Bellevue is that they do not want to answer questions about codes and code compliance. You have to do the research yourself -- fortunately, the entire set of codes is online and searchable. They will only address your question after you have filed a complaint. So, you can't just call them and ask "is there a setback requirement for a block retaining wall along a private property boundary?" You have to try to figure out what the rules are, then file a complaint, then they will come out and look at it. Also, with stuff like this, the rules are frequently different for new installations vs. existing. You need to address the problem while the installation is taking place, otherwise the city might decide that it is a burden on the neighbor to have to dismantle the wall and move it back six inches.

It is always best to be calm and civil throughout something like this. Be reasonable. Offer to give him access to your property, but only after the line is surveyed. Ask if you can plant something along the base of the wall to soften the visual impact, or even offer to help him plant things along the top of the wall that will trail down it so it's not an eyesore. (NOT IVY!)

Good luck. Please come back and tell us how it's going.

Here is a link that might be useful: Search Bellevue City Codes

    Bookmark   October 28, 2007 at 12:15PM
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pianojuggler(z8b WA)

Is the wall over four feet high? If so, he needs a permit. If he needs a permit, he needs the lot surveyed and an engineering drawing made of the proposed installation.

See City Code 23.76.025, para 4.

(What he is building is a "Modular block wall" by the definition in 23.76.015.)

    Bookmark   October 28, 2007 at 12:40PM
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grrrnthumb(z8 WA)

Thane you can also go down to the building dept and get a copy of the plat plan for your neighborhood. It will possibly help you to find your existing corner markers (probably a metal rod that is buried out of site now) or help you find monuments built into the street that you can measure off of. If you can do basic geometry, chances are good that you can find your front corners on your own and maybe your back corners too.
I sure agree you have to get him to stop now. The farther he goes, the less chance you have and the tougher he'll fight. You may also 'splain him that if access is tight then he has to build it back farther so he can get access. He has no right for access on your side so he can build up to (or past) the line.

    Bookmark   October 28, 2007 at 1:53PM
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pianojuggler(z8b WA) usual it has some ambiguity between the text and the diagram. The diagram suggests that the wall has to be at least one foot inside the property line. The text does clearly say that a 'modular block wall' is considered the same as a rockery for the purposes of determining required setback, permits, geotechnical engineering approval, etc.

Frankly, I would be calling the city code compliance office first thing Monday morning.

Here is a link that might be useful: Rockeries Info Sheet (pdf)

    Bookmark   October 28, 2007 at 3:38PM
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grrrnthumb(z8 WA)

I think that link that PJ just posted does show that even if it's an under-30" wall, it still needs to be 1' away from the property line. That is just a rough overview of the real code, so it's not suprising it's not also spelled out in the text.
If it is going to be over 30" high, then it's easy. It definately would be a "structure", just like a house, and it has to be 5 or 10 or more feet from the property line depending on your setbacks. Below is another link that spells that out some more.

Building past your property line I believe is also a code violation.
Either of those 3 ways, call Monday early and tell them you have a code violation and you want an inspector asap.

Here is a link that might be useful: Rockeries and Landscape

    Bookmark   October 28, 2007 at 9:22PM
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nwnatural(zone 8 PNW)

thane, he obviously doesn't care about you. That's why he's building right over, if not right up to the property line. Plus, he disregarded your comments. I can understand wanting to keep a good neighbor relationship, I'm the same way. But, he's not playing nice and you shouldn't have to feel obligated to tippy toe around him.

    Bookmark   October 28, 2007 at 10:16PM
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thane(z8 Bellevue, WA)

Thank you so much for the informative and intelligent replies. I am going to talk to him and ask him where he thinks the property line is, and how he determined that. I do have a plat map, so I'm sure we can go over it together and see how much we agree or disagree on that. Then I'll point out that his wall should be at least one foot back from that line. I'm also thinking of marking out some areas and asking him to avoid stepping in those zones, for the protection of my shrubs.

This gives me a lot to go on for researching the actual building codes too, thank you so much! I'll follow up here and let you know how it goes.

    Bookmark   October 29, 2007 at 11:43AM
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rita_h(PNW 8b)

Consider writing a letter and bringing it with you when you talk to him. Getting things down in writing helps if there's ever a dispute that he knew or didn't know what he was doing.

    Bookmark   October 29, 2007 at 2:20PM
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pianojuggler(z8b WA)

I have another idea that may help, if you are still having polite civil discussions with your neighbor:

If you can get drawings that were filed for any past permits or installations (sewer lines, etc.) there should be a lot map that shows the property line AND any structures. From this, you can measure from the foundation of the house and get the line. Measure at both corners and one or two places in the middle, and you should be able to sight an extrapolation of that line out to the street. You can do this easily IF there are no trees or other obstructions in the way. I couldn't do this because my neighbor planted a tree that has now encroached on my side of the line.

But if you have a clear sight line, you should be able to put a stake in the ground at the three points you measured, and run a string along all three of them and out as far as you can see a straight line. This should get you close.

As for the trampling, if there is room to do so, you could ask him to run down to Home Despot or Lowes and buy a 4x8 sheet of cheap crappy luan or 1/4" plywood or something and lay it down where he will be walking. That will minimize the compaction of the soil and maybe avoid harming your trees.

    Bookmark   October 29, 2007 at 3:46PM
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blameitontherain(8 PNW wetandwetta)


You've been given good advice and it sounds like you are a reasonable person, trying to act in a sane and fair manner. Good for you! If for some reason, however, your neighbor persists in exhibiting what looks to an outsider to be dismissive, if not outwardly hostile, behavior, keep in mind that Washington has a special statute that deals with your situation: RCW 4.12.030 prohibits anyone from cutting down, girdling, or otherwise injuring any tree, timber or shrub on another's land. The penalty for such "timber trespass" is treble -- three times the amount of actual damages. This is an extraordinary remedy and the result of lobbying by the big giants (the name, "Weyerhauser," ring a bell?) but is equally applicable to urban neighbors and bitty city trees. While I trust you and your neighbor will be able to work things out in reasonable fashion, it might help to know there is this big stick available to those who speak softly.



    Bookmark   October 29, 2007 at 4:21PM
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pianojuggler(z8b WA)

Well? I've been on the edge of my seat for four days now!

    Bookmark   November 1, 2007 at 2:26PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Would that seat be a piano bench?

I'm interested in that RCW, I've got a neighbor that reached over the back fence to cut off my black bamboo at the top of the fence and throw the trimmings down on my side.

    Bookmark   November 1, 2007 at 3:28PM
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grrrnthumb(z8 WA)

Argh! I don't know about yours, but mine grows awful slow. I'd be pretty annoyed if they did that. Was it growing over on their side?

    Bookmark   November 1, 2007 at 5:24PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

No, they reached across the fence onto our property and clipped it off. They also pruned off some of a rhododendron of ours that was on their side, this of course is certainly within their rights but reaching onto our property and cutting is criminal trespass. Why they would want to remove any of the screening provided by both plants I can't say.

Since the rhododendron prunings originated on their side I threw them back when I found them on our side (they had to walk over to the fence from where the branches were snipped, reach over the fence and drop them onto our property). Later I discovered they had picked them up and threw them back over onto our side a second time.

I've thought of hanging a banner over the fence, onto their side announcing that I was aware of what they were doing and that it was criminal trespass and taking various similar actions but haven't wanted to take the time or bother with it in any other fashion. It would be quite easy for me to address them verbally, over the fence at some point and make it clear what I thought about what had been going on.

    Bookmark   November 1, 2007 at 11:26PM
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thane(z8 Bellevue, WA)

Well, I've spent some time and effort trying to locate the exact rules for a retaining wall in my zone. It looks like if the retaining wall is over 30", it has to be 5' back from the property line. Now if it's under 30", I'm not sure. The diagram that pianojuggler linked to seems to show that it would be required to be 1' back from the property line. I can't find that in the codes, however. I even got someone from the City of Bellevue building department to talk to me, and they seemed to think that the wall could be built right up to the property line if it were under 30" tall. I asked the woman why the diagram showed a 1' space between the property line and the under-30" wall, and she didn't seem to know what I was talking about. She just kept repeating that it didn't have to be 5' back. Hmm. I'm going to do more research.

I haven't talked to the neighbor yet, but I will. Even if the wall can be built right up against the property line, I want to be sure he doesn't damage my shrubs while he builds it. I will keep you all updated.

    Bookmark   November 2, 2007 at 7:18PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

He's already packed the soil down around them, so the root zone has been impacted - he doesn't have to break off branches to do harm. You probably do need to do something about that right away.

    Bookmark   November 2, 2007 at 10:53PM
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thane(z8 Bellevue, WA)

bboy, what can I do to loosen up that soil without harming the roots further?

    Bookmark   November 3, 2007 at 11:16AM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Throw down some cedar play chips or arborist wood chips.

    Bookmark   November 3, 2007 at 3:04PM
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pianojuggler(z8b WA)


I think you need to have someone from code compliance come and look at the wall. Just go ahead and make the complaint that you "believe the wall is in violation." When the person comes out, show them the sheet and ask for an interpretation.

I usually find that at least the first wave of people you ever talk to on the phone at the City of Bellevue are more confused than you are. I called to report that a campaign sign had been NAILED to a tree on a public right-of-way. I have been told that the parks department is responsible for all public trees. So I called the parks department. The woman there transferred me to transportation as soon as I said "sign". The the woman at transportation said, you need to talk to parks and transferred me back. Then the woman I first talked to decided to transfer me to her supervisor because she didn't understand what I meant by "a tree in city-maintained property along a street" ("you mean a tree in a park???").

If you need a yard or so of arborist wood chips and have some way to transport them, send me an e-mail (click on my user name here, then select "send me an e-mail"). I have a pile in my front yard and I'd be happy to give you some to help protect your plantings.

    Bookmark   November 4, 2007 at 12:43PM
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thane(z8 Bellevue, WA)

Hi folks. Well, I talked to someone else who specializes in land use regulations for the city, and she said that if it's under 30", it can be right on the property line. This weekend my neighbor laid out the foundation of the wall, and the placement doesn't look bad. The trench he was digging for it seemed like it was coming onto my side, but his placement looks like it's on his side.

My last remaining concern is for my shrubs. I'm going to put out some markers and ask him to avoid stepping in the areas near the shrubs. If he absolutely needs to I can ask him to lay out some plywood as suggested above.

Thanks for all the input and suggestions everyone!

    Bookmark   November 5, 2007 at 11:31AM
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blameitontherain(8 PNW wetandwetta)


Here is the text of the appropriate section (the "6" was left off of my citation above):

Statutes and Session Law
64.12.030 Injury to or removing trees, etc. -- Damages.

64.12.030 Injury to or removing trees, etc. -- Damages.
Whenever any person shall cut down, girdle or otherwise injure, or carry off any tree, timber or shrub on the land of another person, or on the street or highway in front of any person's house, village, town or city lot, or cultivated grounds, or on the commons or public grounds of any village, town or city, or on the street or highway in front thereof, without lawful authority, in an action by such person, village, town or city against the person committing such trespasses or any of them, if judgment be given for the plaintiff, it shall be given for treble the amount of damages claimed or assessed therefor, as the case may be.



    Bookmark   November 6, 2007 at 6:56PM
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mkirkwag(Puget Sound)

I kind if skimmed, so apologies if I'm repeating, but one thing you can do is look at the info you got when you bought the house - it will show the -darn it...brain blip...well, anyway the access you have to leave for utilities - right of way! That could be your saving grace. You might be able to see it on the King County parcel viewer, too - I can't remember.

One thing you need to look out for - if he builds something on your property and you let him, after a certain period of time you *forfeit the property* to him.

    Bookmark   November 7, 2007 at 9:28PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Thanks for putting that up.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2007 at 3:36PM
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