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Dealing With Officialdom

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Anyone who owns a vast tract of land, miles from their nearest neighbor with unlimited barn space for storage, should read no further!

For the rest of us, who house our collections at home, in communities where we have to show respect for what our neighbors can see and hear of our hobby, the following discussion may prove of interest. The plea for advice came from a member of the List who lives in Texas, but the advice he received came from Australia, Europe and America it doesn't matter where you live, officialdom can create the same problems! Not only does the List cover great geographical variety, but also a good cross-section of 'day jobs,' including some who have offered their advice who work on the other side of the legal fence!

Today I received a notice from my city regarding my collection of stuff. They say I have 12 days to get rid of it or hide it. It is all behind fencing in my back yard. There is some true 'junk' but most of is genuine antiques. I have two operable steam engines connected to one small boiler and three gas engines. I have a lot of small iron pulleys and vintage valves hanging on my fence. The junk I can move, but the true toys I would like to keep.

Got any suggestions on how to proceed to combat this?

Nicely ask the zoning official to show you the ruling concerning your collection. Chances are it may not apply to you directly and there is some latitude in interpretation. If you can't reach a compromise I would suggest seeing an attorney buddy, if you have one.

How fancy is your neighborhood? Some are ULTRA fussy - you can't park your car in your driveway and you can't hang clothes out to dry. The first step is to check the law. If it's a gray area, the next step is to look at your yard from the perspective of a neighbor who might not love old iron. What does it look like to him? Was he the source of the complaint or was it a busybody elected official doing 'yard inspections?' My guess is someone complained about your yard.

Maybe put the 'junk' and assorted parts in storage and out of sight and leave the engines. See how it looks then. Invite the 'official' to come have a look. Maybe even show him the running engines.

Most notices of this type are sent pursuant to a property maintenance ordinance enacted by the city or county. I would contact the office that sent you the notice and ask what specific part of the ordinance you have violated.

Chances are the enforcement office has never visited you. They will often receive a complaint and then send out a form letter instructing the property owner to clean up his property within a specified time without actually viewing the alleged violation. If they hear no more, they assume the problem has been resolved. Do you have a neighbor who 'has it in' for you? Could be the source of your trouble.

I've been through this before. A builder who doesn't get along with my father is putting in a development next to us. My father is a general contractor and still has his old cable excavator out back in the woods. You couldn't see it from the road 'til they cut down nearly every tree back there.

This guy complained to the town that we had commercial machinery being stored on our property - said it could be seen from his building site and would put off potential buyers. Lucky for us the people at town hall know about this guy and my dad, and they said so long as we kept it covered with a tarp that would be fine.

I would get rid of your 'real' junk and cover up the good stuff; shouldn't have any more problems. My father's old machines, like my engines, are antiques and there are certain laws out there that exclude them. For example, a neighbor didn't like me running my engines and called the cops. I explained that they were antiques. The cop looked into the laws on operating antique equipment, and it turns out I can run my engines any day of the week during business hours! Good luck!

I've been through this before. Make sure it is not visible 'I would get rid of your 'real' junk and cover up the good stuff.' from the street. Don't operate machinery outside the hours of your zoning. Alternatively, you can build a really ugly shed (but within local laws) and keep everything in it.

While I could start the inevitable rant about the unfairness of neighbors, municipalities, etc., and indeed feel like doing so, that won't go anywhere toward a resolution. There must be more history here - surely this is not the first encounter you and the authorities have had. A 12-day notice is not usually the first volley. Does the history of the dispute give any hints as to what would be acceptable?

Are you getting competent legal advice? I'm not talking about an expensive fight here, just someone who knows the ropes in that town to direct how you can best handle this yourself.

Can you negotiate a settlement? Is there a known entity to negotiate with?

As far as really fighting it, I'd bet you're screwed. You'll have to negotiate a solution. That's where an attorney could help you think through the options. I have an attorney for my company whom I call probably every month. Never any substantive work that I give him, but he helps me decide which battles to fight and which to let go.

Good luck with your dilemma! Don't let your town run over you - make sure the laws are chiseled in stone before you abide by them.

At this point, we got a little background information from the person whose collection was causing a problem.

In the dozen years I have been at this location the only things I have been given notice for is once for low-hanging tree branches over streets and side walks and once for tall grass when my mower gave up the ghost.

The quantity of old iron has been reduced in size and number in the last five years or so for this possible reason. I will find out what exactly is the problem. Perhaps its a new civil functionary trying to prove him/herself?

May I suggest approaching this thing in a friendly manner? I'm in the real estate business and am a contractor who has been through many notices, hearings and plain bureaucratic nonsense.

One thing I keep hearing is that 'those people only want more fees.' I don't think so. Some just want to do their job, some want to push people around. The second class is the toughest. In either case, being apologetic and kindly asking for an explanation of the violation (s) may be a good approach. These clerks usually have the authority to ignore certain minor infractions, and are more inclined to do so if dealing with a cooperative citizen. I have been right, but bowed to their authority and almost always got good results.

The continuing saga: I went round one today with the city. I guess it was a draw. It seems some city functionary was cruising the neighborhood and saw a chain hoist in my lift tree - the one I use to load and unload for shows. That person thought I was running a business, like replacing auto engines and the like, and filed a complaint. I have been quite careful not to be a bother to my neighbors, so this problem did not come from them, as it could have.

The investigator described my collection of iron as 'auto parts.' Probably the only thing that could be described as such would be spark plugs on my gas engines. I politely informed him he had no idea what he was looking at. Being denied the pursuit of my hobby has given rise to getting some place in the sticks. Fortunately those of us in the hobby are generally of good and generous character. I have offers from friends of storage until something can be worked out.

He ASSUMED you were running a business. He ASSUMED those were auto parts. He didn't bother to find out 'the rest of the story,' as Paul Harvey would say.

Unfortunately, anything outside of perceived 'normal' activities is not understood, and intelligence-deprived individuals take it upon themselves to cause problems where none should exist.

I find the problems you have with town authorities in the U.S. very strange, as in most things you seem to be far less regulated than we are in the UK. We do have occasional disagreements with neighbors, but not usually with town authorities. I suppose the old saying 'An Englishman's home is his Castle' does have some truth!

Living peaceably with neighbors and keeping on the right side of local laws is important in the old engine hobby, as it can be both noisy and untidy. Some of the advice given here is very sound and worth bearing in mind, if only to avoid getting into this sort of situation.

Contact engine enthusiast Helen French, Leicester, England, via e-mail at: You can join the Stationary Engine List on the Internet at:

'I would get rid of your 'real' junk and cover up the good stuff'.

'The investigator described my collection of iron as 'auto parts.''