The Bent Tree North neighborhood, a leafy collection of half-million-dollar homes adjacent to an eponymous country club in Far North Dallas, was the picture of calm on Wednesday morning. Tucked just out of earshot of the Dallas North Tollway, only the faraway whir of lawn crews and the purposeful swish, swish of middle-aged women power-walking winding streets penetrated the silence. But don't be fooled by the placid facade, for it conceals a remarkably bitter — and petty — dispute between next-door neighbors that spilled into the courts and stayed there for nearly a decade.
The neighbors in question, the Roses and the Bonvinos, live on Harbor Town Drive. Their homes both back up to a small creek, across which is the Bent Tree Country Club's golf course. The houses are similar — both two-story, both around 5,000 square feet — but not identical. The Bonvino's home is full of windows and light; peering through the front door's cut glass, one can see all the way through to the golf course. The Rose's door is solid, and tucked in a dim nook with a wall covered with ivy. Neither family was home.
Their dispute dates to 2006 when Robert and Gaynell Rose erected a 9-foot wooden fence in their backyard. The Bonvinos objected, both because the fence violated the neighborhood's deed restrictions, which limit fences to 6 feet in height, and because it partially blocked their prized view of the golf course. Rather than engage in a passive-aggressive pissing match, which seems to be the default option for dealing with an annoying neighbor, Nicholas and Doris Bonvino sued.
That was in August 2006. A week ago — a full nine years after filing the suit — the Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas handed down an opinion ruling in the Bonvinos' favor and finally resolving the case — unless of course the Roses choose to try their luck with the Texas Supreme Court, which seems unlikely but not out of the question given the seething bitterness that all but leaps off the page of the trial transcripts.
The litigation hasn't been continuous. In 2007, a Collin County Judge ordered the fence to be taken down and issued a permanent injunction prohibiting the Roses from building a fence taller than 6 feet. But the feud and the court case both reignited in March 2012 when, while the Bonvinos were out of town, the Roses built a new fence. Though Robert Rose testified that the boards of the new fence had been carefully measured to be sure that they didn't exceed 6 feet, it came out during subsequent court proceedings that he had used fill dirt to raise the land supporting the fence several inches so that the fence actually measured between 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-5 from the unimproved grade.
The Bonvinos reopened their case against the Roses, which led to a flurry of filings and counter filings and court hearings, which led to soaring moments of legal discourse as the following:
Thomas Whelan, attorney for the Bonvinos: My question, Mr. Rose, is, isn't it true that the fence blocks the Bonvinos' view from a portion of their backyard?
Robert Rose: I'm not aware of anything. I know it blocks my view of the golf course. His fence blocks mine.
Whelan: Did I ask you that question?
Rose: I'm sorry.
Whelan: My question is, you would concede that the fence is opaque and that, unless you have X-ray vision, you cannot see through it.
Rose: Depends on where you're standing.
Whelan: All right. You would concede that you can't see through the fence.
Rose: Well, I can't see through wood.
Here, an exasperated Judge Angela Tucker admonishes Rose, "Don't play words with me," though the admonition doesn't seem to stick. Later, he's quizzed by Whelan about the amount of bond money he should be forced to put up while he appeals Tucker's order to shorten the fence. Rose wants to set it at $1,200, the cost of putting in a new fence. The Bonvinos argue for $125,000, which is the amount of payment Rose told his neighbors he would require to comply with the court order and take down the fence.
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Whelan: Isn't it true that you put a price of $100,000 on relinquishing your right to put that fence up there?
Rose: That's — I'll say a multiple of one time.
Judge Tucker: So the answer is yes?
Judge Tucker: All right. You may continue.
Whelan: So you acknowledge that there is a value that Mr. Bonvino and the Bonvinos lose if they do not have the views from their backyard during the pendency of the appeal
Rose: The value is, if he cuts it down. That was his penalty value.
Whelan: That's not what I asked. Do you admit that there is a value to losing the views from the backyard during the pendency of the appeal, whether it takes six months, a year or 18 months?
Rose: The value was my pain and suffering for him cutting my fence down.
Whelan: That's not what I asked you. I asked you, do you admit that there is a value that you put $100,000 on for the views for — to relinquish your right —
Rose: Oh, no. No. No. No. I did not do that. No. The way you phrased that question, no, I did not.
Later, Bonvino offers evidence similarly compelling evidence for a six-figure bond, noting that houses overlooking the golf course are significantly more valuable than other homes in the neighborhood and that, "Um, well, the personal value to me when I have to look at that ugly structure every day, and had — since the last two-and-a-half years almost now that it's been up and we've been going through all this nonsense."
Tucker set the bond at $125,000. Rose objected but forked over the money — that is, rather than just take down his fence and move on with his life, he forked over six figures to prolong the spat — and pushed forward with his appeal. The appellate court summarily picked apart the Roses' arguments and upheld Tucker's order to take the fence down and ordered them to pay the Bonvinos' legal fees for fighting the appeal, thus adding to the God knows how many tens of thousands of dollars in legal costs that had already accumulated in the case. Really, though, no one wins when a petty squabble opens an unbridgeable rift between neighbors. Except the lawyers.