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Property-line Disputes Best Settled Through Talking

Notwithstanding the invention of Global Positioning System technology and other improvements in land surveying, property-line disputes are a common phenomenon, regularly helping lawyers upgrade their lifestyle.

These disputes happen when adjacent landowners come to differing conclusions about where their common property line lies. Usually, that happens because someone made a mistake in locating the line and built a fence or other structure on the wrong side.

But disputes can also arise from a bona fide disagreement as to where the line is properly placed. This can happen if there is an ambiguity in a legal description contained in a deed, or if surveyors disagree on the location of monuments that are to be used in placing the line. Land surveying is still part science and part art.

Property-line disputes are further complicated by the concept of adverse possession. To oversimplify a bit, here in Colorado, if a trespass onto another person’s property continues openly for a period of 18 years, a statute of limitations expires and the person who owned the land subject to the trespass can no longer sue to stop the trespass. As a consequence, ownership of the land passes to the trespassing party.

So what should you do if you find yourself involved in a property-line dispute? Well, the first logical step is to hire a surveyor to accurately locate the line, or at least explain (in terms a nonsurveyor can understand) why there might be alternate locations for the line.

Then, even if you prefer a military action as your next step, you should contact your neighbor, share the results of your surveyor’s work and propose a solution to the problem.

The solution could be an agreement to move an incorrectly located fence or structure, or the granting of an easement that would allow the encroachment to remain in place, or a sale of property that would change the location of the common boundary line and thereby eliminate the trespass.

If you and your neighbor can agree on a solution that requires documentation, you should get a lawyer involved to be sure the job is done properly. Otherwise, you may be planting the seeds for another dispute.

If your neighbor’s response to your efforts at diplomacy involves threats of legal action, you will definitely want a lawyer on your team to help you decide what to do next. If a lawsuit must be filed, there are several strategies to consider.

For example, a claim could be brought against your neighbor for trespass, asking the judge to order the neighbor to remove encroaching items and award damages.

Colorado also has a 100-year-old statute that sets up a court-supervised method for determining a disputed property line. If there are ambiguous legal descriptions involved or claims of adverse possession, a proceeding called a “quiet title action” might be the best path to follow.

In a quiet title action, the plaintiff asks the court to enter a decree stating the plaintiff is the owner of the disputed property.

Any judicial resolution of a property-line dispute is going to be expensive, with neither side having a claim against the other for attorneys fees. For that reason, both parties should realize they have a common enemy - the legal profession - and do everything in their power to reach a negotiated solution.

Source: Colorado Springs Gazette, June 20, 2007.

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