Wood Smoke: Towards a Citizen-Centered Approach

Posted: 28 September 2013 in Local Issues

This is another article related to a local challenge we face in my hometown and a suggestion about how we might deal with it non-punitively.  It appears in a local newsblog and you can go there if you want to see the comments of some local folks. 

There is little doubt that some of our neighbors in Davis have health problems that are exacerbated by wood smoke.  There is also little doubt that other neighbors enjoy having wood fires and that some use wood or wood products as a way to heat their homes.  This leads to a conflict over interests/needs, but it is a conflict that is fairly localized—that is, between people who live near one another, people who share a common space and who, presumably, would be best served by resolving the conflict themselves without the automatic threat of punishment from the city.

We have the tools and resources to deal with wood smoke conflicts in this way—to find alternative forms of conflict resolution that will serve the needs of those whose health is adversely affected while providing those who desire to burn wood some latitude to do so.

I would propose we consider two options to help neighbors resolve such conflicts:

First and foremost, people should be given resources so they can seek out neighbors and deal face-to-face with them in a respectful and direct way.  Some people with health conditions would no doubt like to talk directly with neighbors whose fires are causing harm, but they may not be sure how to go about it.  A first option would be to provide sufferers with a “script”—a standardized language that they might use to talk to their neighbors.  Such a “script” helps people have respectful and clear language to use in talking to others.  It could go something like this:

My name is X and I live at X.  I (or a family member) suffer from a respiratory/heart/other condition that is made worse by wood smoke.  There are times when smoke coming from your house has been harmful to me (my family member).  Most recently on X date smoke caused Y.  I am not here to tell you to stop burning wood. I am asking you to understand the problems smoke causes me (or a family member) and ask you to consider working with me to try to diminish the effect.  Here is some literature that the City has produced about when it is okay to burn and when it is not. Maybe we could chat about the recommendations once you’ve had a chance to read them. These recommendations may not work in every case, but I think if you would be willing to follow them it might help resolve the problem I am having.  Also, I would be happy to give you my phone number so we can keep in touch about this and find a way to work things out in the future.  I really desire that you understand I don’t want to cause you a problem. I do want you to understand how smoke affects me (or my family member).

As implied in the script (and it is a VERY rough idea of how it might look), the city would also provide a brochure on safe burning practices and products that neighbors could share with each other and discuss.  Both the script and the brochure could be downloaded from the City website.  Please note that such a script helps the person focus on his/her needs (or those of a family member) and seeks to develop a shared, dialogue-based approach to dealing with the problem.

While such an approach might help some people, others may be unwilling or fearful to use it (or may have tried it without success) and would benefit from assistance from a neutral third party.  A third-party organization (a non-profit for example) could be assigned by the city to handle cases in which an affected party needs help to deal with a neighbor.  The third-party organization would be staffed with trained volunteer mediators.  In this case the process would work as follows:

1. A person who is affected by wood smoke would contact the assigned agency and provide a summary of their concern and the address of the house from which the smoke is coming.

2. The agency would send a letter to that address that would state the problem and refer to relevant city ordinances but stress that the neighbor would like to deal with this without involving the city.  The letter would also stress that participation is voluntary and that a facilitated discussion among parties could be set up to occur over the phone or in person to try to arrive at a mutually satisfactory solution.  The letter would include the same brochure from the city referenced above and ask the person to read it. The letter would provide contact information for the agency (but NOT the neighbor) and could include the following:

We would ask you to contact our agency via email or phone, referencing this letter.  The following are options available to you in response to this letter:

1.  If you believe that the person who is seeking to discuss this matter with you is in error—because you do not burn wood, were not burning wood during the period in question, or for any other reason—please let us know.  We will get back in touch with the person for follow up with them. Mistakes can be made, and we want to assure that there are no misunderstandings.

2.     If you would like to commit to following the guidelines in the brochure, please let us know and we will happily monitor how things go with your neighbor and be back in touch if there is a problem.

3.     If you would like to speak with your neighbor in a facilitated dialogue to understand their concerns or try to reach another solution, please let us know. Also, let us know whether you would like to do that face to face or over the phone.

4.     If you prefer not to take any actions at this time, let us know, and we will inform your neighbor. 

If we do not hear back from you by XXX, we will assume you have chosen the fourth option and will inform your neighbor, who may choose to take other actions.

Whatever you decide to do, please recognize that we will not be sharing any information about your decision with the city. Any discussions we facilitate are confidential. We are mediators seeking to help resolve this issue and are independent of the city even though they have assigned us to play this role.

The foregoing examples are rough but provide ideas about how a voluntary conflict-resolution strategy related to wood burning could work.  Such an approach puts the tools of non-violent and non-punitive conflict resolution into citizens’ hands, thereby strengthening our social web while reducing the burden on the city.

Davis is fortunate to have experienced mediators (some of whom were part of the one-time city-funded community mediation program) who are willing to volunteer their time to manage such a program and offer facilitation services for it.  It is my hope that such approaches will become routine in dealing with conflicts in our city.

(Thanks to Diane Clarke for her input on this article)

  1. Nellie Bly says:

    I’ve heated with wood for many years, but my woodstove has a catalytic converter, which is a secondary burning chamber. Anyone shopping for a woodstove might want to consider this type of stove. Mine is a Vermont Castings, but there are other manufacturers. The exhaust from my stove is 86 percent pure.

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