Time limit on asserting property rights
Assert your property rights, or lose them. That’s the takeaway from a recent decision from the California Court of Appeal.
In the case of Johnson v. Little Rock Ranch, LLC, the appeals court upheld a lower court ruling that ordered a property owner to sell a portion of their land to an encroaching neighbor.
The case illustrates the broad discretion courts have in determining how to resolve encroachment disputes and highlights the importance of maintaining and protecting one’s property boundaries.
The California case centered around two adjoining parcels of land, a 677-acre northern parcel and a 210-acre southern parcel owned by the Johnsons.
For more than 50 years, the parcels were more or less separated by a barbed wire fence. However, the fence was entirely on the Johnsons’ parcel, with the actual property line approximately 50 feet to the north, accounting for a 3.4-acre discrepancy.
The northern and southern parcels were owned by extended family members. For decades, the Johnsons allowed the northern-parcel family to use land, and the northern family’s cattle grazed right up to the fence line. Both families knew the fence was inconsistent with the property line.
In 1997, the Johnsons leased their land to a tenant who planted an almond orchard up to the fence line. The tenant did not use the strip of land beyond the fence, and the Johnsons rarely visited themselves.
In 2012, the northern family sold their land to Little Rock Ranch. Neither the property owner nor their agent informed Little Rock Ranch that the property in question did not extend all the way to the fence. However, the title report did disclose a potential discrepancy, without providing specifics. The agent, reportedly, led the buyer to believe the discrepancy was likely only a foot or two.
Soon after acquiring the land, Little Rock spent more than $1 million preparing to plant a walnut orchard, including grading and irrigation. Three or four months passed after the improvements before the Johnsons notified Little Rock of their property ownership. The Johnsons then sued for trespass and sought an injunction, requiring Little Rock to return the land to its prior state.
The court’s ruling
First, the court found that unreasonable delay precluded the request for relief. The Johnsons had known the fence line didn’t match the property line and had allowed their former neighbors to use the property as their own for decades. Furthermore, they waited until after Little Rock had improved the land to address the issue.
Second, the court applied the doctrine of “relative hardship.” The court recognized that restoring the strip to its former state would cause the defendant considerable expense and harm. Meanwhile the plaintiffs rarely used the land, other than for recreational hunting.
In the end, the court ordered the Johnsons to sell the disputed strip of land to Little Rock using the market value of the improved land, as opposed to its previous value.
Notably, a dissenting judge disagreed and argued that Little Rock should be held accountable for failing to investigate disclosures in the title report.