By Dan Harkins
DELTONA - In this corner, at 3140 Cabot Court, is Susan Armon, who's taken to carrying a baseball bat on walks around her tiny cul-de-sac for fear of her neighbor's dogs running up on her, growling and unleashed.
"I hope it gives me a fighting chance if they come back again," the longtime resident said, referring to her new weapon of choice.
And in this corner, next door at 3130 Cabot Court, is Bryan Douglas, whose four dogs have gotten loose enough times this month to cost their owner a $271 fine and the ire of Ms. Armon.
"Sometimes, the dogs will get loose or dig themselves out of the backyard - it happens," he said. "It's not like I'm hoping it will happen."
Instead of calling the city's animal control line, prompting the dispatch of a code enforcement officer and the issuing of a fine for creating a public nuisance, Mr. Douglas says Ms. Armon could have merely knocked on his door if his dogs got loose or were barking incessantly - something he believes a good neighbor would do.
Budding feuds like these are taking place all over the country, and at least one expert says many could be the result of an increasingly reclusive culture that fears direct confrontation.
This translates into complaint calls instead of neighborly conversations over the back fence, taxing already-overburdened and under-budgeted code enforcement offices.
Dale Baker, director of the city's building and enforcement services division, said many complaints his office receives might have been handled by residents themselves, employing a little kindness.
His eight officers and two supervisors handled 13,613 calls for service in the last full fiscal year (2010/11). Nearly 5,000 of those calls pertained to animal control.
And Mr. Baker has five fewer officers than five years ago.
"I don't think the public understands how long some of these calls take," Mr. Baker said. "We may spend 20 or 30 minutes out there just trying to catch a dog."
The same holds true with many types of calls, he said. To cut one errant property owner's grass requires paperwork and as many as four trips to the property: one to inspect and post a warning; another to see if the owner heeded the warning; another to make sure the landscaping contractor arrived; and a final visit to verify the grass was cut.
As an alternative, Mr. Baker suggested, a neighbor could have just cut the grass to send a less costly message: We don't like this long grass, but we're not going to involve the authorities just yet.
With dog-at-large or barking dog calls, Mr. Baker said, often times someone could have knocked on the dog owner's door or given them a call to remedy the situation.
"I try to be a good neighbor," Mr. Baker said. "My neighbor may do things from time to time, but I'm not going to turn him in for it. If he's having a party tonight and he didn't invite me and he's making noise, I'm not gonna turn him in. But there are people out there that call and complain about noise just because they didn't get invited. A lot of this stuff can be settled without getting us involved. You go knock on the door and say, 'Can we work this out.' But they won't do it. They call us."
With annual budget talks getting underway at City Hall, Commissioner Zenaida Denizac recently spoke at a regular meeting in favor of adding code enforcement officers to bolster the department's efficiency.
"It's not just a perception" that the city looks disheveled and needs more code enforcement, she said this week. "It's a reality."
Though more officers need to be hired, she said - a tough prospect with further dwindling property tax revenues - it wouldn't hurt for more residents to start acting more neighborly.
"But these days," she said, "everybody lives behind closed doors. It's different times we're living in."
Even Ms. Denizac admits to fearing confrontations with those who live around her.
"My next-door neighbors party sometimes until 2 or 3 in the morning," she said, "and I've been hesitant to say anything, to go over to their door and say, 'I'm happy you're having fun, but at the same time I can't sleep.' It's awkward to tell my neighbor to behave. So I can understand why people just call the police or code enforcement instead."
In Ms. Armon's case, she said Mr. Douglas was stand-offish from the start.
"Quite honestly," she said, "he never tried to contact me and apologize or anything."
Mr. Douglas says he's past apologizing.
"I don't think it's ever going to work with them," he said, referring to Ms. Armon and her husband. "They haven't acted like a neighbor yet. The problem is: She feels like she owns the whole cul-de-sac. She's always worried about what we're up to over here."
At least one expert says this type of division isn't uncommon in an ever-more-cloistered world.
Toni Blum, a professor of psychology at Stetson University, says numerous studies in recent decades have shown that people are less likely to know their neighbors anymore.
This is due to a range of factors, she said: They're more apt to socialize with coworkers than neighbors; their household is more likely to require two incomes, leaving no one home to socialize during the day; and they're more likely to rely on online socializing than old-fashioned, over-the-fence chatting.
The result: a fabricated community with no true neighbors.
"Some people are trying to replace social connections in reality with social connections in virtual reality," she said. "Things like Facebook and Twitter are allowing us to have these social connections, even though we're not sitting around with our neighbors at a barbecue in the backyard any more."