View From The Wood; Good Fences Make Good Neighbors: a resident’s view

A Maplewood resident with neighbors who burn yard waste and trash in their back yards finally got fed up and called the police. Here’s his story, told to 40 South News on the last day in January.

There’s an old saying that “good fences make good neighbors.” Thoughtful people through the ages have disagreed with this: The poet Robert Frost, in “Mending Wall,” pointed out that sometimes barriers are installed and maintained when there is no need, and the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out that people are lonely because they build walls instead of bridges.

Nevertheless, we are imperfect people in an imperfect world, and ‘fences,’ in the forms of laws, zoning ordinances, municipal codes, etc. can help to keep the peace.

The converse is also true: Bad fences make bad neighbors.

It’s a given in an older community such as Maplewood that our actions will be more noticeable to our neighbors than they would be in West County or other areas with larger lots. The people who originally built our houses did not want to have to walk too far to catch a streetcar or a train to get downtown or elsewhere; we try to be considerate of our neighbors and hope they will be considerate of us.

I try to live and let live, but starting a few years after we moved here in 1994, our neighborhood has become the trash-burningest place I have ever seen. When I vent to family or co-workers who live elsewhere in the Saint Louis area, they are incredulous . . . you can’t burn trash in an urban area, people just don’t do that, they say.

I have about 10 neighbors who would beg to differ; on the other side of my street are 5 houses in a row who have burned stuff in the last year or two; earlier today neighbors to our west—directly upwind from us on this warm, windy day—gathered their leaves in pile and burned them. (In fairness, it’s been nearly a year and a half since the police and fire departments told them they could not do this, and as the last time they filled the neighborhood with smoke was at about 1:30 in the morning, they may have forgotten).

This is doubly annoying because in Saint Louis we have few days when we can comfortably open the windows. My neighbors don’t care to burn whatever it is they are burning when it is too hot or too cold; invariably it is on days such as today—in the January thaw, or on the first warm days in March, or in Indian Summer that they decide to burn yard waste, leftover lumber, and maybe a bit of trash, plastic or whatever else they have laying around. And we’re not talking a few hours, either: We’re talking fires that are lit on Friday or Saturday, and are still burning Sunday or Monday.

Two full weekends in the Spring, and two full weekends in the Fall might not seem like much. Maybe, to keep peace in the neighborhood, one should try to ignore those. But then 18 years goes by, and you realize you have spent a total of seven months shut up in a stuffy house, with the stink of burning leaves and plastic seeping in despite closed windows, and you decide ‘enough is enough.’

The bottom line: One cannot have any open burning in incorporated municipalities in Saint Louis County. Furthermore, ‘open burning’ technically refers to burning in which a) Combustion air is not controlled to ensure a clean burn and, b) Combustion byproducts are not collected by a chimney.

Last November someone a few streets over must have finished a construction project; there was about a cord of wood—plywood, pine, etc.—which they were disposing of in two portable fire pits (‘on’ more than ‘in’) and two old barbecue pits.

This was not such a big issue for me before I developed asthma. The only positive thing about asthma is that, when you go to the emergency room with your fingernails turning blue, you don’t have to wait in line. The inhalers are not cheap; when smoke is aggravating asthma I can use the inhaler more ($$), but this often leads to thrush, a fungal infection in my throat. The only thing I have found that takes care of thrush are lozenges that cost $100, and are not covered by my insurance.

Ignoring the long-term effects of air pollution on my asthma, I think it’s a bit unfair that I should have to pay a $25 co-pay for a doctor’s visit and $100 for medication so my neighbors can save $1.95 on yard waste stickers.

I think I can dimly remember burning leaves when it was still legal. I have a better memory of leaf burners rusting away next to the trash cans. My parents had one of wire mesh; my grandparents had a fancier one like a trash can with holes in it to admit air. I remember these rusting; I don’t remember them in use.

We all know we can’t burn our trash, right? I suspect even the people doing it know they can’t. In theory, one should not call the police about neighbors. One should be able to discuss the problem with what they are doing, and your neighbors should do the neighborly thing and stop burning stuff. Or at least wait until the wind turns. So, after being told off by a neighbor who knows full well they are in the wrong, you wind up calling the police.

And here is where the lack of good fences comes in: Maplewood’s Municipal Code defers to county law. The county defers to the state, and one can, generally, burn trash in Missouri. However, the EPA has required stricter regulations for municipal areas which have not met clean air standards—such as Saint Louis County—and thus trash cannot be burned at all in the county; yard waste cannot be burned in incorporated municipalities.

My neighbors don’t have to like this, but that’s the way it is. To write a ticket, though, police have to be specific. It takes some research to find the exact law; I think in the past there may have been some officers who lived in places where one can burn yard waste, assumed it was the same here, and gave my neighbors bad advice.

Bad fences are contributing to bad neighbors. I feel the city should draft laws regarding open burning, publicize them, and then enforce them without making citizens complain.

(The author has lived in Saint Louis all his life, save for service in the Navy. He has lived in Maplewood since 1994).

7 thoughts on “View From The Wood; Good Fences Make Good Neighbors: a resident’s view

  1. Reading this article, I have to infer that I am one of the offending neighbors in question, even though we only had a total of 4 wood-fires over the course of 2015. Not a lot from my vantage point. (Also, from what I can tell, there are only 3 of us in a row with fire pits. But that’s beside the point.) For us, starting a fire in our backyard is a way to gather friends and family together in celebration, or just to celebrate the beautiful weather. As one of these “bad neighbors” that the writer references, I have no idea where he makes the claim that we are constantly burning leaves and plastic. From my backyard I can see my two other neighbors’ yards, and it’s always been firewood, and sometimes downed tree branches. We are all dutiful about raking our leaves towards the curb at the end of the fall, so Maplewood can sweep them up.

    I have never been informed by the writer that he had asthma. I’m sorry he suffers from such a debilitating disease. Maybe if he’d spoken with some of us with some neighborly friendliness and mentioned his ER visits, we would be more cognizant of how he was being affected. As it is, all I see are the police showing up every once in a while, as he stands in his driveway and points across the street. Not a very neighborly act.

  2. If it’s just a matter of $2 for a sticker why not offer to pay and save yourself hundreds and the aggravation. I know you should not have to however.

  3. Btw, isn’t healthcare a scam, especially for those with asthma. Why do we put up with the greed of this industry?

  4. Quite the dissertation in regards to your “woes”…. IF your asthma is as bad as you make it sound then maybe you should keep your windows closed all the time and not go out on windy days. I doubt that you get invited to a lot of neighborhood gatherings. Maybe you should move out to the country as I think that would solve a lot of your problems – including those “inconsiderate” neighbors.

  5. Good, clean cut firewood is not “trash” as your referencing. It’s called a recreational fire that brings people, including neighbors & friends together & people are enjoying it more than ever.
    Take a moment & step back from your soap box & look around, there are fire pits stretched all the way from the city to the county & everywhere in between. I believe in this day & age, we all have bigger issues to be focusing on.

  6. Get a life, take a pill and get over it! There are more outside fire pits now than ever, what’s the difference? Such a pathetic victim

  7. I hope the police crack down on these polluters. It’s a matter of public health. We all suffer when these rules are flouted. My sympathies to the author.