28: An Activist Is Born

28: An Activist Is Born

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Time to Thrive

An Activist Is Born

I wondered why somebody didn’t do something. Then I realized, I am somebody.

~Lily Tomlin

As far as I was concerned, I had no future when I lost my husband in April of 2013. His death was not a total surprise but he’d survived a nasty brain infection and was living well, I thought, although with less-than-par lungs.

I was very depressed. My husband had just turned sixty-one. I was a relatively young widow with a couple of lonely decades stretching before me.

It was the day after Billy’s death that I received a notice from the county that my fence was on my neighbor’s land. I had new neighbors who must have complained. I was told to remove the fence by a date certain or “the county will take action.”

I was so wrapped in grief and preparing for my husband’s funeral that I thought there had to be some mistake. I’d been living in that house for more than ten years; I’d obtained all legal and required documents. The offending fence was there when I bought the house and I had a legal county-recorded survey showing my fence to be very legally on my land.

I got through the funeral and dealt with the post-service reception, which was at the house that Billy and I so loved. It was on that awful day, when my friends and family had gathered to comfort me, that surveyors from yet another neighbor behind me were measuring my fence. I asked them to leave and after a few words, they did.

I vowed that I would get to the bottom of this — just give me time, I prayed, to get over the death of my husband.

Over the following few weeks I was bombarded with letters from builders behind me, from new neighbors I’d never even met, and I heard from old neighbors to my right and left who were receiving recriminating notices from the county, too.

It was the last thing in the world I wanted to do, but I methodically got out all my house settlement papers and considered the situation. All of sudden some new people behind me got new surveys, and mine was no good? Something was wrong with this scenario.

My husband was a kind and gentle soul. He would have been overwhelmed by this, but at least I would have had company. Tears poured down my face as I pondered fighting this battle alone. Nevertheless, I was determined.

First, I compiled and copied all my documentation, including my own legal survey, and sent packages to everyone involved with this mess, including the builders and my county councilwoman. I was lucky to get a quick response. My survey was perfectly legal, and perhaps the surveyors made a mistake, and perhaps the really nice people behind me who hadn’t bothered to introduce themselves or even move in yet were right, but it belonged in a civil court, not with the county.

My pressure on the county council people, my letters to builders and the county property boundary czar, and my straightforward letters to my new neighbors worked. I managed to stop any action against me by the county.

That bit of pressure over, I began investigating. I checked out the date and times my county council met, and I decided to take action. I went to the next county council meeting and discovered that I could sign in to comment before the council. So I did.

As I sat and listened to the meeting, I was mesmerized. I learned how building height limits were calculated, how county employee benefits were computed. I listened to the testimony of other citizens like myself, talking about their wells or septic situations or generic county laws. When my name was called, I said my piece and did it very well. The county council, under the directive of my own councilwoman, agreed to look into how property dispute procedures were handled by the county.

Over the next few weeks I began attending my county council weekly meetings, and really liked it. I am a blogger and I began writing a weekly column for a local political site about all the things I’d learned from the meetings.

One day I got a phone call from a local newspaper informing me that the county council had rewritten all procedures for handling property boundary disputes. The reporter wanted to come to my home and interview me.

Thus I ended up in a half-page spread in a local paper: “Sussex County woman behind county council revamp of property dispute laws.” They took my picture in full color, in front of my fence. Everywhere I went, people greeted me as a local hero of sorts, a citizen ombudsman if you will.

Then I read that the county was considering a new law for excessive dog barking. I pondered this notion. The county already had a noise ordinance and I often had to deal with a particularly fractious neighbor who complained about my dog barking when every other dog in the neighborhood was barking at your evening passers-by, bicyclists, strollers and the like.

I signed in to the county council and when my time came I stood tall and told my story. “This is a beautiful place to live,” I pleaded with my lawmakers. “Please don’t encumber us with excessive laws.”

After I left the county chambers, I was besieged by TV and radio reporters. Goodness, I didn’t have any idea. I did give an interview with a local radio guy, and a local TV station asked to go back to my house and film my dog. A week later, the county tabled the proposed law — not necessarily because of me, but hey, it happened.

Soon, I couldn’t go anywhere without somebody recognizing me either from the newspaper report or the television story.

I continued to write my local political column and began to get interest from many of the local politicos. I was writing about them, and they were interested in what I was saying.

It wasn’t a planned thing, this change that moved me from quiet citizen to vocal activist. In fact, had my husband lived, I doubt I’d have become involved in such things. He was quiet and I spent much of my time attending to him medically. I never denied him a second of my time, but after his death I found my new passion and I had the time to pursue it.

As of this writing, I don’t know where I’m going with this. I do know my political column is doing very well and I have a large following.

Next week I am going to Dover to check out what the state politicos are up to.

I always said I wanted to change things, but I never expected this.

And I’m not done yet.

~Pat Fish

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