Property Line Disputes, Adverse Possession, and Prescriptive Easements
Adjoining property owners sometimes dispute the location of their property line or property boundary – or discover that a neighboring structure extends across their property line. Neighbors also can find themselves in a dispute over easements, rights-of-way, or claims of trespass or nuisance. These controversies can take many forms, but in the suburban areas that are prevalent in central Maryland they often arise because of the misplacement of a fence, wall, trees, or shrubbery — or occasionally even a building being constructed on the wrong side of a property line. Neighbors also sometimes assert claims of nuisance or trespass when water run-off, or other water sources, are artificially diverted from one property onto another, or when noxious odors or noise from one property disturbs neighboring properties.
Our firm regularly assists clients in property line disputes. We help property owners obtain a survey to establish the exact location of a property line, and when necessary we also bring legal action to establish clear ownership of property, or to eject someone else from a client’s property. We also represent clients in nuisance and trespass disputes.
One interesting aspect of property line disputes – well-known to lawyers but often unknown to property owners – is that a person can obtain legal title to real property simply by occupying that property for long enough – if the circumstances are right. Although relatively rare, this legal concept – called “adverse possession” – can have important ramifications if a fence, wall or building has been in place long enough to bring the doctrine into play.
There are a number of elements that need to be present for adverse possession to apply, and this article is not a comprehensive discussion of the law in this area. In brief summary, to acquire ownership of property through adverse possession the person claiming ownership must be in actual possession of the parcel of property, and this possession has to be “notorious,” “exclusive,” and “hostile” to the record owner on the title of the property. All of these are legal terms of art that have been defined through past judicial decisions. The possession of the property must be under a claim of title or ownership, and in Maryland it must be continuous for at least twenty years. (Other states have different time periods for adverse possession). The party claiming adverse possession must prove all of these elements to a court in order to gain tile of property by adverse possession.
In addition to claiming outright ownership of property through adverse possession, it is also possible to be granted what is called a “prescriptive easement,” if the claimant has exercised transit rights across a property for a sufficiently long period. The elements for establishing a prescriptive easement are very similar to the elements for adverse possession, except the concept of the use being “exclusive” is different when it comes to easements. Easements may exist not only for the physical transit across land by people, animals or vehicles, but also for structures such as wires or pipes, above or below ground.
If you find yourself in a dispute with another property owner about the location of your property line, or regarding claims of easement, trespass or nuisance, I would welcome the opportunity to answer your questions and provide advice in these areas. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (410) 489-1996.