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Firm Blog

September 20, 2016

Boundary Lines And Property Access – It’s Not An Issue Until It Is

In our practice, perhaps the most colorful cases involve disputes over rural and lakefront property. The boundary lines on non-platted, non-urban parcels of land can often be a matter of guesswork despite the best efforts of even the most skilled surveyors. In the absence of skilled surveying, it is remarkable how often a whole neighborhood can be mistaken on where the actual boundary lines are. This typically occurs for a combination of reasons.

Most of Minnesota was originally surveyed in the nineteenth century, prior to the development of modern surveying equipment and training. Furthermore, surveying the parts of the state which were heavily forested, lake-filled, and swampy was particularly difficult. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that because such land was not used for agriculture or settlement, precise surveying was not seen as important.

When the land in cities and suburbs was developed for residential purposes, it was typically platted as divisions and subdivisions, which involved the developer doing work upfront to ensure that the location and boundaries for the individual parcels, roads, and utility accesses were clearly delineated. Furthermore, the relatively rapid sale and resale of these parcels provided frequent opportunities for any such issues to be addressed and corrected.

In many rural and lakefront locations, this process has been absent. Even when a larger parcel of land is divided and sub-divided for small-scale residential development, it is commonly done between family members and friends who see no need to incur the expense of having a survey performed. For the same reason, boundary lines are often not marked and may even become overgrown with vegetation or otherwise obscured. Another peculiar aspect of many rural and lakefront properties is that the driveway access is often long and indirect due to the terrain or due to the homeowners’ desire for seclusion.

For the majority of people in this situation, they feel it is not important to know with certainty where exactly the boundary lines are located. If neighbors are getting along and there are no issues with road or utility access, it seems like a needless worry. Over the course of time, structures and improvements are built based on the carefree, underlying assumptions that were made when the land was originally divided into separate parcels.

…and then one day those assumptions become toxic.

For those unlucky individuals with a latent boundary-line issue, eventually some intervening problem will occur, which although minor by itself, may get tangled up in a boundary dispute and become much more difficult to resolve. For example, two neighbors may begin to have a dispute regarding  tree-trimming on what is believed to be the property line – and this dispute may then lead to the discovery that one of the driveways encroaches on the neighbor’s property. What may have been a simple issue to resolve with a friendly neighbor has now become leverage in a power struggle. Furthermore, whereas interpersonal disputes can often be ignored or resolved informally, disputes over land typically must be resolved with the involvement of surveyors, attorneys, and often the courts. These types of issues also frequently interfere with important life events, such as selling a property, refinancing a mortgage, or even divorce. When that happens, it can consume a person’s life.

The situation above has occurred in many cases in different permutations. In one case, the owners of two neighboring properties shared a common road access from which both of their private driveways branched off. When both of them purchased their properties, they had the understanding that the driveway was subject to an easement which required shared use. Immediately after discovering that this was not the case, the owner of the property on which the shared access was located blocked his neighbor’s access.

In another case, the owner of the property with the driveway access problem was attempting to sell it. Upon becoming aware of this, the neighbor personally interfered with viewings of the property. The neighbor wished to purchase the property himself and was attempting to render it unmarketable so that he could buy it at a large discount.

Even when road access is not at issue, boundary line problems can still be so severe so as to drastically interfere with the use of a property. An example from another case involves a septic system. People building residences in rural areas need to be alert about the ability of their property to accommodate septic systems. It is not as simple as just having a septic location – alternative septic locations are also important. This is especially true for lakefront home sites. Septic systems have exact specifications for the size and dimensions of land they require and local and state governments have their own regulations for the placement as well. In this example, the property owner had a “dream house” on a narrow lakefront parcel. The existing septic system was approaching the end of its life span and a replacement needed to be constructed elsewhere on the parcel. The parcel had a fine location for it, except that the new location abutted the boundary line and was several feet too small. Unfortunately, by the time the property owners became aware of this problem, they had been feuding with the owners of the neighboring parcel for several years. Needless to say, resolving the septic system problem was not easy or cheap.

In an extreme example from one case, a husband and wife thought that they were building a house near the edge of their property. In reality, the house was located entirely on the neighboring property. While this is a very bad problem on its own, because it was not immediately detected, it created far larger implications. Their ability to refinance their mortgage was impaired and they were unable to sell their property until the issue was resolved. Had this couple been in the process of divorce, the problem would have caused great misery.

Our experience with these types of cases have taught us that it is far better to identify and resolve boundary line and property access issues at the earliest convenience rather than wait until they mature into substantial problems. It is human nature to ignore the existence of problems that do not yet interfere with day-to-day life. However, any delay in dealing with these issues risks magnifying them and having them become entangled in other parts of your life. Do not hesitate to contact a real estate attorney to eliminate the risks posed by boundary line and property access issues. For less money than you might imagine, an experienced attorney can help you identify any problems and find ways to eliminate or minimize future problems.

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