November 6, 2015

Washington Court of Appeals Resolves Fence Dispute, Quotes Robert Frost

The Washington Court of Appeals recently issued a published opinion that addressed a dispute between two neighbors over a fence.  The opinion begins in style by quoting Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall": "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offense."  It then notes that this case illustrates the wisdom of Frost's observation in the context of an existing fence.

The trouble started when Owner A moved a fence over the objection of Owner B when a survey based on the deed description showed that the fence was located on Owner A's property.  Owner B then filed a lawsuit arguing that the fence constituted the boundary between their two properties pursuant to the legal doctrine of boundary by common grantor.  The trial and appellate courts accepted that argument.  

Application of the common grantor doctrine presents two questions: (1) was there an agreed boundary established between the common grantor and original grantee, and (2) if so, would a visual examination of the property show subsequent purchasers that the deed line no longer functioned as the true boundary?  The Court ruled that there was an agreed boundary in this situation because both owners' conduct showed an understanding that they owned adjacent parcels separated by the fence.  As the Court put it, the owners "manifested ownership of their separate properties in relation to the fence."  For example, Owner B occupied and cared for the property up to the fence line until the fence was moved by Owner A.  The Court went on to rule that a visual examination of the property gave notice that the fence was the true boundary.  It pointed out that "the record discloses no reason for the existence of the fence other than to function as a boundary between the properties."