SOME LATE-SEASON SNOW
The valentines are in the trash. That can only mean one thing: St. Patrick’s Day is right around the corner. We wandered into a Family Dollar the other morning for some pork rinds and red pop, only to be assaulted by not just shamrocks, but Easter bunnies, IRS forms and even Mother’s Day cards. Halloween is just around the corner.
We’ll launch our First Meteorological Day of Spring festivities with some late-season Snows, appropriate in this case (because winter snow still sticking to the ground here, after an ice storm and a few inches last weekend). But the Snows we consider today were a couple, one party in a convoluted adverse possession case. The surveyor started the problems in 1969 by taking the landowner’s word for it that a rock marked the corner of the 40-acre tract. It was the wrong marker by about 40 feet, and so everything he did from there was wrong, too. Garbage in, garbage out.
But no one knew about the error. The landowners used the faulty centerline to give an easement to neighbors, and the neighbors put a driveway on it. That was off-center as well. To compound problems, there was a decrepit barbed wire fence off-center from the off-center centerline that Mr. and Mrs. Snow — who had bought land a year after the faulty survey — believed to be the real centerline.
When the owner next to the Snows sold in the mid-1990s, he knew they claimed the 1.5 acres between the easement and the old fence as theirs, so he sold 8.5 of his 10 acres by warranty deed but the disputed land by quit-claim deed (which meant that the seller wouldn’t help out the buyer in any legal battle arising with the Snows).
And the battle inevitably came. The Snows argued the old fence enclosed the land, and they had exercised control over the disputed acreage by cutting a firebreak and harvesting cedar. But landowner Camp said the land was so densely wooded, no one could see what – if anything – that the Snows had done. The trial court held that the Snows hadn’t exercised continuous control over the land and that the old fallen-down fence didn’t demark or enclose anything. And there was no evidence that Camp or his predecessor had acquiesced in the old fence being the boundary. If he had, he wouldn’t have conveyed the disputed area, even by quit-claim deed.
(By the way, contrary to popular belief, the deed is not called a “quick claim” deed.)
Snow v. Camp, 2007 Ark. App. LEXIS 631, 2007 WL 2782825 (Ark.App., 2007). When the Snows purchased a 40-acre tract in Baxter County in 1967, an old barbed-wire fence crossed the property. It seems that at the time the surveyor, John Ed Isbell, set the boundary between the Snows’ lands and that now owned by the Camps in 1969, he used a stone shown to him by the property owners as the corner of the 40 acres, and then goofed, laying out lines that were about 80 feet short of a true forty acres. Then, in 1970, the Snows, the purchasers of another tract, and the grantor signed a right-of-way easement agreement. The legal description for the 50-foot easement agreement used the 1969 survey’s centerline as the midpoint of the easement. The Snows built a 15-foot gravel driveway that was mostly within – but was not in the center of – the 50-foot easement.
Twenty-five years later, the Williams bought the tract now owned by the Camps. During his 18 months of ownership, Williams learned that the Snows claimed the 1.5-acre portion lying south of the old fence line and north of their actual boundary line. When he sold 10 acres in 1997 to Camp, Williams knew there was an issue about the area, so he conveyed 8.5 acres north of the old fence by warranty deed and the 1.5-acre area at issue by quitclaim deed.
In May 2000, the Snows sued the Camps for adverse possession of the 1.5-acre tract and for an injunction preventing the Camps from interfering with the easement. They argued that the boundary line between the parties’ property was established along the fence line by acquiescence. As a result of the error in the survey on which the easement’s legal description was based, the Snows asked for reformation of the easement as they had actually used it.
At trial, Isbell admitted that his survey was wrong. Ramona McDonald, who was a party to the easement agreement, said that they had intended for the road to be in the middle of the easement. The Snows had exercised control of the 1.5-acre tract by cutting cedar up to the fence line and mowing for a firebreak. When they bought the property, the land was so heavily wooded that the area in question could only be accessed on foot. Williams said he had understood that he owned property north and south of the fence; that he maintained his yard to the fence line; and that on the other side of the fence were dense woods, which he was unaware had been mowed. He said that, once, when he had discovered some men hired by the Snows cutting sprouts close to the easement, he told them that it was his land. He said the fence was completely down on the ground for about twenty feet in at least two places, that it did not surround the Snows’ property and that no one kept animals on either side of the fence. He knew that the Snows claimed the land. He said that neither he nor the Snows had used the area, which he called “just a vacant, barren strip of woods.” Michael Camp admitted that Williams had informed him, after giving him the two separate deeds, that the Snows claimed the 1.5-acre tract. He said he had never considered the old fence to represent the boundary line.
The trial court ruled that the Snows failed to establish adverse possession of the area in dispute, which it found to be unenclosed, because they did not continuously occupy or use the property for more than seven years and they never excluded any record owner from it. The Snows appealed.
Held: The Snows didn’t prove their adverse possession. The Snows argued the trial court should have considered the significance of the surveyor’s incorrect centerline in deciding the claim for adverse possession, although the old fence line to which they claim adverse possession is considerably north of that Line. They argued they had shown control of the 1.5-acre tract since 1969 by clearing a fire break around and making repairs to the fence, cutting trees and bushes, harvesting rocks, mowing, parking equipment, and feeding forest animals there. But the appeals court held that due deference had to be given to the trial court’s superior position to determine the credibility of the witnesses, and the trial court had found some testimony more compelling than other.
In order to prove the common-law elements of adverse possession, the Snows had to show that they has been in possession of the property continuously for more than seven years and that their possession has been visible, notorious, distinct, exclusive, hostile, and with the intent to hold against the true owner. It is ordinarily enough proof of adverse possession that a claimant’s acts of ownership are of such a nature as one would exercise over his own property and would not exercise over the land of another. For possession to be adverse, it must be hostile only in the sense that it is under a claim of right, title, or ownership as distinguished from possession in conformity with, recognition of, or subservience to the superior right of the holder of title to the land.
There is every presumption that possession of land is subordinate to the holder of the legal title. The intention to hold adversely must be clear, distinct, and unequivocal. What’s more, the General Assembly added a requirement for adverse possession in 1995, that the claimant prove color of title and payment of taxes on the disputed property or a contiguous piece of land for seven years. Fencing the disputed area is an act of ownership evidencing adverse possession, and the fact that the fence may have deteriorated does not necessarily mean that the property is not enclosed. Instead, the question is whether the enclosure is sufficient to put the record title owner on notice that his land is held under an adverse claim of ownership. In this case, the Court ruled, the evidence easily supported the trial court’s decision. The Snows’ use of the disputed land was sporadic and inconsequential, and in no way exclusive.
The Court rejected the Snows’ argument that the parties acquiesced to the fence line as the boundary. Whenever adjoining landowners tacitly accept a fence line or other monument as the visible evidence of their dividing line and apparently consent to that line, it becomes a boundary by acquiescence. A boundary line by acquiescence may be inferred from the landowners’ conduct over many years so as to imply the existence of an agreement about the location of the boundary line. All the Snows had here was a dispute, and no evidence of a tacit recognition by the Camps or their predecessors in title that the old fence line was the boundary.
– Tom Root