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Boundary Lines 101

The following is an overview of boundary lines and legal issues involving them.  These issues can become very complex.  You should always seek the advice of an attorney and/or surveyor should you have to ever address any of these issues.  Also, this article is based on laws and rulings in the State of Vermont which are constantly changing.  The statues of other States may be different or not apply.

Probably one of the most neglected items when buying or owning property is boundary lines.  Yet, when there is a problem, it can become very expensive and time-consuming endeavor to resolve.  If you are planning on buying or already own property, hopefully the following will make your life easier.

Boundary or property lines are established by licensed surveyors or civil engineers.  These professionals will do a title and deed search to determine in writing and on paper the “metes and bounds” or “distances and bearings” of your property. 

Next, your surveyor will do a field survey to verify and identify your boundaries.  While there are many methods for marking boundaries, surveyors will usually drive iron pins or rebars with plastic id caps on top of the pin particularly at corner intersections.  Often flagging is placed along the line on old fence lines or on posts or on trees that are directly on the boundary.  On the corners, usually flagging is wrapped three times around the closest trees to the corners.

Make sure you walk the property lines before you commit in anyway toward a purchase.  Ask the neighbors on the other side of the property line to go with you to confirm their understanding of where the property lines are.  This is very important to your having “peaceful” boundary lines in the future.  

Finally, make sure after buying a property, that you walk the boundary lines at least once a year.  Usually in the fall or the end of the snow melt in the spring is the best time to do these boundary walks since fence lines and posts and partial stone walls are easier to locate.  Take some flagging with you to replace worn or missing flagging.  Deer seem to love flagging during a bad winter.  An old surveyor trick is to find a sapling about ten feet tall on the boundary line; bend the top of the tree to you; tie the flagging at the top of the tree; and then release.  Be careful since you are creating what loggers call a “spring pole” which will whip upward when you release the sapling.

However, the larger your parcel, the more neighbors you will have, and the probability of a boundary line dispute will increase.  Compounded with every increasing land values, property owners are more protective of their boundaries.

As mentioned above, licensed surveyors or civil engineers mark boundary lines based on the evidence they find.  Property owners, real estate agents and foresters can flag what they think are property boundaries.  A blaze is a mark on a tree which is made by removing the bark with a sharp instrument such as a hatchet.  Only surveyors can blaze trees on or adjacent to the property line.  No one can blaze over a previous blaze.  However, blazes can be painted or flagged by property owners, real estate agents, and foresters. Only surveyors can place pins on the lines and at the corners.   Moving or removing pins, fence line, stone walls, or fence posts on a boundary by anyone is a felony.

If two surveys disagree and the surveyors or property owners cannot reach a compromise, then the matter must be taken to Court for settlement.  The Court will make its decision based on the preponderance of evidence presented by both parties and their surveyors.  It is important for you to realize that only the Court can “determine” the location of a boundary line.

Adverse possession is another issue that arises from questionable boundary lines.  If a neighbor mows the grass or uses part of your land for access or places a campsite on part of your land and does so for 15 continuous years, the neighbor may be entitled to ownership of your land through adverse possession.  If the neighbor has a survey by a licensed surveyor that shows that it is his property, right or wrong, he may access the property until the matter is resolved amicably or by the Court.   If you are not planning on selling your land, and wish to avoid the legal and Court costs, you may file what is called a contested deed that essentially stops the clock on any adverse possession.  However, the contested deed “dirties” your title and your neighbor’s title.  Before either party can sell their land with “clear title”, the contested deed must be removed through mutual agreement or by a Court settlement as to the true location of the boundary line.

To show how complex boundary issues can become, a boundary line decision was recently made by a Vermont District Court.  For over twenty eight years, the defendant trespassed by using the plaintiff’s old road to access the defendant’s property. A contested deed was filed by the plaintiff six years after the trespassing commenced.  To access his property at different locations, the defendant would remove boundary fence and trees, a felony in itself.  After cutting the trees, the defendant would destroy the evidence by bulldozing and using a front end loader to remove the evidence.  In 2010, the Vermont Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiff as to the location of the boundary line.  However, in the subsequent damage case, the District Court did not recognize the continuous tort doctrine and said that the six year statue of limitations applied and only damages within the last six years would be awarded.

The message here is if you think you are going to have to go to Court, make sure to document with photographs and correspondence all damages.  Also, make sure your attorney files a claim no later than six years after the torts have commenced.  Your estimated legal costs could easily approach $50,000 or more.  The above verdict may be appealed.  The question becomes how the District Court can say that the continuous tort doctrine does not apply when the defendant used the plaintiff’s road and property as his only access to his property since 1984.  After the Supreme Court ruling in 2010, only then did the defendant build a driveway over his property from the main road.

Probably the most frequent issue in Vermont regarding boundary lines is timber trespass.  Your logger and/or forester can flag what they think is the boundary line.  Again, they cannot “determine” a boundary line.  Only the Court can.  After flagging, it would be prudent for you, your forester, and your logger to meet with your neighbor and to walk the line together.  Take pictures along the boundary line showing boundary trees, blazes, iron pins, stone walls, and fences irrespective of their physical condition.  Document your meeting.  If your logger cuts timber on your neighbor’s land, you will be held liable.  If your logger did it intentionally, your neighbor will be awarded treble damages.  If you or your logger can prove that it was not intentional, then only the stumpage value will be awarded.  If your timber is removed by your neighbor’s logger, then you may have the burden of proof to show that it was intentional.

In another recent Vermont case, the forester testified to an extensive tree and stumpage inventory and showed the maps proving that the logger had committed timber trespass and that it had to be intentional with all the flagging, stone walls,  fencing, and boundary maps.  When the logger was on the witness stand and was shown the survey map, he flipped the map upside down and claimed that was the way he read and understood the map.  As a result, the Court accepted his excuse that he did not intentionally commit timber trespass. Thus, the Court did not award treble damages to the plaintiff.

If you heed the information in this article and follow the advice of your surveyor and lawyer, you should be able to avoid many future conflicts.  As everyone knows, good fences make good neighbors.  Likewise, good boundary lines make good neighbors.