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Wars have been fought, ships built, marriages made and unmade in less time than the dispute over Howard Green's stone wall has lasted.

Next Sunday, it will be two years to the day since Green, a retired fruit farmer, got the letter.

It was from the Department of Transportation. It was about the stone wall that fronts Howard and Laura Green's property on Route 20 in the Southern Tier town of Portland.

It isn't just any wall. It's nearly a century old and about 3 feet high, with a stone staircase near its center. In the summer, it serves as a planter for hundreds of red geraniums. More than a property marker, it's a local landmark that adds to the town's character.

According to the letter from the DOT, however, it is something else entirely.

The department says it is a safety hazard infringing on the state's right of way.

The DOT gave the Greens 30 days to get it out of the way -- no small task, given that there's also a high, sloping lawn and an 80-foot Austrian pine to consider.

On Friday, the principals and their lawyers -- by now, all familiar faces -- will meet with Judge Joseph Mattina in hopes of working out a compromise.

If not, they'll see each other in court. For the fourth time.

What was once a battle of principle has become a lengthy siege.

Howard Green, at age 82, has learned firsthand what, thankfully, few of us will ever need to.

He has learned what it's like to go to the mat with a bureaucracy.

"Why," he wondered recently, "should this thing have snowballed into such a mess?"

One suspects this isn't the first time such a question has been asked about a government body.

"I have no idea," said Walter "Pete" Naegely, a DOT design engineer, when asked about the dispute's length. "We're just trying to find a solution that will make everybody happy."

Green can't figure it. The wall is a scenic landmark. It didn't cost the state a cent to build, doesn't cost it a cent to maintain.

It's on a straight stretch of road, about two car widths from the highway. It's well-marked with reflectors.

In the 46 years the Greens have lived there, hundreds of thousands of cars have driven by. None has ever hit the wall.

Green told all of this to the DOT.

The DOT did not go away.

In the past two years, the Greens went to court three times, had at least five hearings postponed, spent thousands of dollars, wrote the governor, got more than 4,000 signatures on a petition of support and spent countless hours researching records.

It wasn't what they had in mind for their golden years.

Howard Green is lean, vigorous and, yes, a little stubborn. When one thinks of the people who built this country generations ago -- inventive, hard-working, self-sufficient folks -- the image of a younger Howard Green comes to mind. His wife, Laura, is calmer in the face of dispute, but no less willing to do battle.

"My patience is nearly gone," said Howard Green. "And my pocketbook is worn down, too. It's ridiculous. I can't take this indefinitely."

"It's on your mind every day," said Laura Green. "You can't just drop it. With all the other things that need doing, I can't believe they're still on us about this."

Believe it. In almost any square-off of John or Jane Doe vs. the state, the powers that be have more money, more time and more lawyers.

The longer things drag out, the harder it is for the little guys to keep up.

Which is not to say the Greens' fight has been in vain. Not hardly.

Two years ago, the DOT was in no mood to compromise.

Said Laura Green, "They indicated to us we'd have to move it back a long ways to satisfy them."

The DOT's argument has been whittled down over the years. It now wants a section of the wall moved 14 inches, and the staircase blocked off with steel bars.

Green will move the protruding wall back -- at his own expense -- but draws the line at barring the stairway.

"Their thinking," he said, "is that a car could come along, slide along the wall, hit the hole where the stairway is and spin around."

He paused.

"The odds of that happening are about the same as winning the lottery."

Besides, there's aesthetic appeal to consider. A pair of 6-inch-wide steel bars is not the ideal accessory for a stone staircase.

"It would ruin the whole effect," said Howard Green. "And we still sell fruit. Customers would have no way of getting up on the lawn."

So there we have it.

After two years, the DOT and the Greens are a couple of steel bars apart.

If this thing is not settled soon, the DOT may really need those steel bars -- to pry Howard Green's hands from around the necks of its lawyers.

Bureaucracy can have that kind of effect on a man.

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