When your neighbor is the U.S. government, don't expect respect, legal group says

Michael Whited   MSLF

It can be tough to get along with the neighbors, but when your neighbor is the federal government, good luck, said one legal group.

Attorney David McDonald with the Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF) said that all too often, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies fail to show private landowners respect.

“It’s a problem that we see fairly often,” McDonald said. “A situation where (landowners) refuse to clean up their land is an easily solvable lawsuit between private parties. When the government is involved, you can’t count on them to act in good faith."

Michael Whited of Boulder County found that out the hard way. Whited’s next-door neighbor's land is managed by the BLM. When a dilapidated mining shed on the property became unstable in 2011, Whited sought to have BLM to tear the old stone and concrete shed down. Whited, a mechanical engineer, was afraid of a rockfall that could cave his house in.

 Whited’s complaints to the BLM were passed from employee to employee and office to office, he said. He offered to buy the small piece of land beneath the shed so that he could do the work himself. He said BLM never took any action.

Finally, in 2016, the shed collapsed, knocking down trees, ripping the breaker box out of the side of his house and blocking his walkway with debris. BLM’s response? They told Whited to apply for a permit to clean up the mess that they caused with their own negligence, Whited said.

“Not only does the government put up roadblocks from fixing their mistakes, they will often provide roadblocks to stop you from fixing their mistakes,” McDonald said.

MWLF filed a lawsuit on Whited’s behalf in 2018. It was settled out of court last year. 

McDonald told the many people who ]have government agencies for neighbors to be proactive.

"Document everything. Anytime you have a lease or a deed or an operating agreement of any kind, make sure you read it. Make sure you know what your rights are. It is unfortunate, but in my experience, you really can’t count on the federal government to be a good faith actor. You really have to assume that if there is opportunity for funny business to go on, then it will," McDonald said.

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