It can happen on any corner, in any city or suburb, in America. You notice some roadwork being done and suddenly, your narrow residential lane is being widened into a major thoroughfare. Soon, cars and trucks are blazing through at all hours of the day or night, and your property value sinks.

After all, who wants to live on a four-lane highway (or what sounds like one)?

Once you expend all that energy to identify the right house on the right street in the right neighborhood, you must continue to monitor the status of your community so that those conditions you found so favorable remain stable. A stable community supports increasing home values, whereas a volatile neighborhood might send them plunging.

But it isn’t just the occasional street expansion you have to worry about. There are other prospective problems you should be thinking about, including crime and safety, the deterioration of local schools and elimination of after-school programs, under-funded park districts and the reduction of public transportation.

What happens if the character of your neighborhood starts to change? As a homeowner, your job is to fight back as best you can. To stay on top of the situation, here are some things you should do regularly:

1). Organize. It’s the 1990s and unions are once again considered hip. While you don’t have to go that far, it’s a good idea to get your block and neighborhood organized against possible threats to its safety, security, and stability.

For example, neighborhood watch programs have become an increasingly popular way to fight crime. Families post “neighborhood watch” posters in their windows and informally take responsibility for monitoring activities in the street, calling police if there’s trouble or they see an
intruder, and setting up a calling tree (where one person calls two more, who call two more, etc.). Some neighborhood watch groups even go as far as to patrol the neighborhood at various times of the day and night, hopefully sending the message that this neighborhood cares about what happens and criminals should go elsewhere.

How do you do it? Although privacy is important, start by getting to know your neighbors. Spend a little time chatting over the fence about common problems and solutions. Find out what are their concerns about the neighborhood. Ask to be introduced to their neighbors and friends who live in the community. Exchange names and phone numbers. Offer to host a barbecue to talk about the neighborhood and what should be done. Ask others to get involved.

Once you’ve organized, you have solid basis (which politicians often worriedly call a “voting block”) by which you can make your voices heard.

2). Check On Public Works. If the street is going to be widened, new lights are going to be installed, or a new dump constructed, your local
department of public works will have to approve it – if not oversee it.

Before you even make an offer on a new home, you may want to visit the public works department and see what’s on the “to do” list for your
prospective neighborhood. After you buy your home, spend some time each year—or possibly even every six months—with the folks in the department to see what kind of projects are scheduled. If you loosely organize your community, one person can be assigned the job of checking out what’s going on in the local department of public works.

The trick is to find out about proposed projects before they are formally approved by city hall.

3). Use The Political Process To Your Advantage. Everything starts—and ends—at city hall. And, politicians are unusually sensitive to anything that might anger their constituency.

Public works departments must usually run projects through a budget approval process. If you know about an onerous project far enough in advance, you can circulate a petition that supports changing or eliminating it. Presenting a petition to your local government officials may or may not have the intended effect, but you should continue to press your case. Tenacity is often more effective than a lawsuit, though that is another option you may consider.

Just be certain you’re pursuing the correct department. If your street is going to be widened and it is a state road, you may have to contact the state department of public works, even if your local village public works department is doing the construction work.

4). The Squeaky Wheel Gets The Oil. It’s true that those who make the most noise get heard. If you’re trying to get the word out about a situation you’re unhappy about, you’ll have to be creative. You can pass fliers out at the train or put them in people’s post boxes. You can set up a home page on the Internet with a forum for discussion, hold a special seminar at the local library or other public building, and try to get your local newspaper, radio or television stations to write about it.

By being vigilant and tenacious, you may be able to get the situation under control. Unfortunately, a lot of different, and often competing,
interests are at stake with any public works project. Some people will agree with you and some won’t.

Don’t expect to be able to stop every project. Instead, go with the goal of presenting reasonable suggestions that can turn the project into something everyone can live with.

July 15, 1996.