Spring 2010

Volume 19 No. 1

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors: True or False?

by Ross H. Taylor

Most have heard the old adage “good fences make good neighbors.” There is some truth to the statement but also some untruths and gray areas. Why is the fence in the present location? How long has the fence been there? Why is it important if I conduct forest management activities on “my” side of the fence? Is there mention of the fence in either adjoiner’s legal description? Hopefully this article can answer some of these questions.

Why is the fence in the present location? If you are fortunate, the fence was located after a land survey was conducted on the property. Did the previous landowners come to an unwritten boundary agreement but did not finalize their agreement legally? If an agreement has been made by abutting landowners and not filed in the courthouse or attached to their respective deeds, ascertaining if an agreement ever existed can become difficult, particularly when the parties are deceased or have moved. Look at your deed. Is there a reference in the deed description stating “thence to a fence” or “thence along a fence?” If the reference to the fence is in your deed language, it would be prudent to ensure the fence location has not been changed since the deed was written. Without benefit of a survey the fence may not be in the proper location.

Why is it important if I just conduct activities on my side of the fence? A number of possibilities exist if the fence is not the legal boundary. You could be a victim of timber theft by the adjacent landowner or you may end up cutting on the adjacent landowner and be liable for restitution to your neighbor for trees removed from their property. One may not harvest all the merchantable timber from their land by “playing it safe,” backing off the fence, or creating a buffer if there is doubt of the fences location. The timber within the buffer may have enough value to pay for a legal survey of the land and remove doubts for the next harvest or stand improvement activity. Prior to conducting activities on their land, private land owners should verify that the fence is the legal boundary contained in their deed, and that a survey has been done.

In summary, fences do make good neighbors if they are located properly or they may cause expensive legal issues if they are not. The landowner conducting the activity has the option to survey the land or not. Remember, the land surveyor is not judge and jury. The surveyor should collect all information available, make you aware of any possible unwritten rights along the property boundary, and possibly suggest a form of resolution. There are a number of websites available for additional information. The Indiana Society of Professional Land Surveyors, http://www.ispls.org, has some links to Indiana Code and Indiana Supreme and Appeals Court cases. Your local land surveyor is also a great source of information.

Ross is the former (retired) Lands Program Manager for the Hoosier National Forest.