Rectangular vs. Property Lines in Alabama

December 22, 2008
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Posted By c.c. tallman on 12/21/2008 at 11:39 AM

Alabama case law is clear that agreements and unwritten rights can re-locate property lines, but not rectangular survey lines. The Alabama courts view the original government surveys as fixed.

Sims v. Vandiver, Sup. Ct. Al; 504 So. 2d 250; (1987) states:

“The case law in Alabama is clear that no agreement or act of adjacent landowners can relocate a government survey line. Guyse v. Chappell, 367 So.2d 944 (Ala. 1979). However, this Court has held that if a party claims property by adverse possession beyond a government survey line, the government survey line does not change, but the boundary line between the landowners may be changed or relocated so that the government survey line is no longer the boundary line. Nelson v. Garrard, 403 So.2d 230 (Ala. 1981); Guyse v. Chappell, supra.”

In simple terms, if your property is described as being in section 2, and your occupation extends into section 3, you only own the lands in section 2; unless unwritten rights have ripened. If unwritten rights had ripened, then your property line would extend to the occupation in section 3. But the rectangular line would not move with the occupation line.

Jacks v. Taylor; Alabama Ct. of Civil Appeals; 2060455; (2007) states:

“Accordingly, the trial court was required to ascertain the answer to a single question of fact -- the location on the ground of the section line dividing Section 33 from Section 4. See Williams v. Laubenthal Land & Timber Co., 941 So. 2d 301, 304 (Ala. Civ. App. 2006) (stating that "[i]t is settled that when adverse possession is not an issue, and adjacent landowners, as here, claim lands defined in terms of government section numbers, 'the controlling inquiry is as to the location of the line in dispute by the government numbers'" (quoting O'Rear v. Conway, 263 Ala. 466, 467, 83 So. 2d 65, 65-66 (1955))); and Upton v. Read, 256 Ala. at 594, 56 So. 2d at 645 (stating that "[t]he question ... was not one of location of a boundary line between the properties as determined by the acts of the parties, ... but rather one of location of the dividing line between the [quarter-quarter] sections; that is, the location of the subdivision line between the two forties according to the government survey setting up the section lines, corners, etc.").”

Alabama courts have noted that the original surveys control the interior lines of sections; and even though interior lines were not run during the original surveys, they can be ascertained.

“The government survey created sections and boundaries and did not merely identify them.” and “All disputes over the location of the lines of sections are controlled by the government survey and located by reference to the original survey.” State v. Allen, 274 Ala. 600, 150 So. 2d 714 (1963).
“Though the interior lines are not established by surveys under the Rectangular System, the system does establish a basis for locating the interior lines.” Ryan v. Fulford, 273 Ala. 600, 143 So. 2d 452 (1962).

“Descriptions beginning at interior corners are not facially indefinite or uncertain, as these points can be ascertained and given a degree of certainty.” Sims v. Sims, 273 Ala. 103, 134 So. 2d 757 (1961); Golden v. Rollins, 266 Ala. 640, 98 So. 2d 409 (1957).

Such situations are treated by the courts in Alabama in the same manner as the previous example. If you own land described as an aliquot part that lies in the east half of section 2, and your occupation extends to the west half of section 2, then unless you have unwritten rights that have ripened, you only own what your deed says you own. If your occupation had ripened to ownership in the west half of section 2, that would not change the location of the north and south center line of section 2.

The rectangular survey system in Alabama seems to be treated no differently than a simultaneous conveyance, such as a block and lot subdivision. You own what your deed says you own until your actions or inactions over time change the terms of the deed according to law. Senior and junior rights sometimes come into play.

Although only binding in Florida, the “Rivers” case sums up how the Alabama courts think about the rectangular system of surveys:

“In short, an original surveyor can establish an original boundary line only for an owner who owns the land on both sides of the line that is being established and that line becomes an authentic original line only when the owner makes a conveyance based on a description of the surveyed line and has good legal title to the land described in his conveyance.” Rivers v. Lozeau, 539 S. 2d 1147 Fla. Dist. Ct. App. (1989)

Surveyors are free to agree or disagree with how Alabama courts have ruled; but the facts are the facts. Alabama courts make a distinction between deed lines based on the rectangular system and ripened unwritten rights lines that do not follow the rectangular system.

Most of the Alabama case law seems to deal with more than a link or two of difference. Courts would probably tend to look upon minor measurement errors as not all that important; as would most landowners. But until a link or two is important, and the courts have ruled and set precedent, we cannot know.

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