Row between Durham neighbors over 3 shrubs lives long in the courts

ablythe@newsobserver.comFebruary 14, 2014 

This is one of the shrubs involved in a disagreement between Durham neighbors before it was damaged.

COURTESY OF CHRISTINE CHAMBERLAIN

— It never was much of a hedgerow, especially after the three knee-high bushes wilted and died.

But the fight that grew between next-door neighbors in eastern Durham over the shrubs has thrived for more than three years, a hardy evergreen of the legal system.

One court-appointed arbitrator, three Durham magistrates, two District Court judges, a Superior Court judge, a 12-member jury and a three-judge N.C. Court of Appeals panel have weighed in on the prickly spat.

And Christine Chamberlain, one of the neighbors embroiled in the conflict, has no plans of abandoning her legal challenge even after the appellate panel ruled against her last week.

“Our court system is screwed up,” Chamberlain said in a telephone interview after finding out about the appeals court ruling.

The legal dispute started when Chamberlain, the 53-year-old wife of an IBM worker and stay-at-home mom who home-schools a child with disabilities, took her garden spade to three ligustrums planted by Anthony Waraksa, 74, a retired CEO for a medical tech company who serves on Duke Medical Center’s Institutional Review Board.

The neighbors live in the Grove Park subdivision, a series of cul-de-sacs built around a lake and golf course. It’s advertised by real estate marketers as “just a stone’s throw” from Research Triangle Park, RDU International Airport and the Brier Creek Country Club community in North Raleigh.

Bushes ignite dispute

Court documents trace the ire between neighbors back to late 2010, when Waraksa ran a string along the property line to guide landscapers hired to plant several ligustrums between the homes.

Chamberlain, a Grove Park resident for 11 years with a history of disputes with Waraksa and other neighbors linked to the homeowners association governing the subdivision, thought the string crossed the border and got out a measuring tape of her own.

Chamberlain thought Waraksa, a former member of the Grove Park homeowners board, had crossed her line – an encroachment of 18 inches. But she also was convinced the landscapers had damaged an electric fence buried beneath the soil berm she erected to absorb runoff from her neighbor’s gutters.

She left a note for her neighbor asking him to refrain from further planting until the dispute over the property line could be resolved.

Waraksa responded with a note of his own, inviting Chamberlain to solicit a survey of her own but discouraging her from hampering his landscaping project.

“We are proceeding with our plantings,” the note said. “I caution you not to interfere with our workmen.”

The three evergreen shrubs, valued at about $80 each, were planted, sowing further disgruntlement that led to the eventual destruction of the bushes.

Secret videotape

The battle over the bushes was not Chamberlain’s first entanglement with Waraksa.

The animosity, she said, has grown from a videotape she secretly took several years ago while upset about an action by the homeowners association board when Waraksa was a member.

The homeowners’ board, according to Chamberlain, had tried to move against an elderly woman who was putting siding on her house that did not meet the standards spelled out in the neighborhood regulations.

The homeowners association, according to Chamberlain, ordered the woman to stop work on her house while a legal challenge was considered. The woman stopped work. Chamberlain, angered by the muscle of the homeowners’ association, alerted the media and the matter eventually was settled out of the courts.

But Chamberlain, who has challenged neighbors on her cul-de-sac, accusing them of not following HOA rules, remained sour over the siding incident.

“Would you keep peace in a neighborhood when they’re trying to take a house from an elderly woman?” Chamberlain said last week.

So Chamberlain videotaped workers putting up siding at her neighbor’s house, which she contended violated the rules, too.

YouTube posting

She called the neighborhood office several times to complain, and when she failed to get the response she wanted, Chamberlain said she posted the video to YouTube.

Waraksa declined to discuss the specifics of past kerfuffles with Chamberlain other than to say “she has been antagonistic.”

When asked why a dispute over three bushes ended up in the courts, he said, “in this particular case she invaded our property.”

The dispute started in small claims court after Chamberlain dug up the bushes in February 2011.

Waraksa filed the claim. Chamberlain filed a counterclaim accusing Waraksa of destroying her buried dog fence.

The case went before an arbitrator who ruled in Waraksa’s favor and ordered Chamberlain to pay $1,900 – for the shrubs, labor and other trees, though the tree allegations eventually were dismissed.

“I just decided not to pay him,” Chamberlain said.

The case then moved from civil court to criminal court with Waraksa going before a Durham magistrate and accusing his neighbor of committing injury to real property.

The charging papers included the wrong date for the dig, and a District Court judge dismissed the case.

Waraksa tried again, offering a range of dates for the magistrate to include on the criminal summons.

The case went before a second Durham District Court judge, and Chamberlain was found guilty of destroying the bushes. She was ordered to pay $240 in restitution.

Appeals begin

But Chamberlain appealed the District Court decision to Superior Court and asked for a jury to deliberate her fate.

After a two-day trial, she was found guilty and again ordered to pay $480 in restitution. She also was sentenced to 12 months of probation.

But Chamberlain appealed the decision, arguing to the N.C. Court of Appeals that she was a victim of double jeopardy, meaning she was tried twice for the same charge.

But the appellate judges disagreed with her.

The first summons listed a specific date, and that charge was dismissed. The three appellate judges found there was nothing to prevent the accuser from coming back with a different date – the range included in the second summons.

Chamberlain was distressed about the decision last week and talked of appealing to the N.C. Supreme Court, which is not obligated to take up her case.

Waraksa praised the appellate court ruling.

“I regret that it all happened,” Waraksa said. “I regret that she’s taken the action she has. This was one thing she had done that was pretty actionable and the district attorney agreed.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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