Court Has Flexibility In Boundary Disputes

By John H. Patton

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Sometimes neighbors get into disputes about rights along their boundaries. These can encompass all manner of issues, from determining the exact boundary (usually by survey); to quarrels about views, trees, and landscaping; to disagreement about access and easement rights; to debate over the use and ownership of encroaching structures.

The average landowner probably thinks the dispute begins and ends with determining which side of the line the contested issue is on, and if it’s the landowner’s side, that settles it. That answer may be a crucial starting point for legal analysis, but it also may not be the final word.

In California, such problems are often dealt with by a court exercising its equitable powers. The hallmark of equity is fairness and minimizing harm to both sides. Boundary lines and deed descriptions usually mean something, but they aren’t the only thing.

The courts occasionally use an “equitable easement” to address these situations. An easement is a legal right to use or do something on another owner’s property. A common example is a utility easement that gives the water company the right to run its pipe through a property, and to access and maintain the pipe by entering that portion. These can be established in various ways. An equitable easement is something the courts can fashion to solve a dispute involving an encroachment or use that has innocently occurred on another’s property. But that resolution cannot create totally new rights and obligations.

For example, by innocent mistake, one owner might build a greenhouse that extends onto the neighbor’s property. Years later, the parties discover that the true boundary runs beneath the greenhouse. The actual owner naturally wants to use the portion occupied by the greenhouse. The greenhouse builder wants to keep things the way they have been for many years, and doesn’t want to tear it down.

The court can look at what is fair under the circumstances; what will create the least amount of harm. If the area is critical to enjoying the property, or if the greenhouse builder was negligent in not determining the real boundary, then fairness may dictate removal.

On the other hand, if the greenhouse was expensive to build, and would be difficult or impossible to move or salvage, and if it imposes no real harm to the true landowner, then fairness may suggest that the greenhouse stays, so long as the innocent builder owns the adjoining property.

In this situation, the court can create an equitable easement, a legal right to maintain a greenhouse even though it is on another owner’s property. Of course, fairness dictates that the court do no more than is necessary to protect the innocent party, and that may mean that the true owner receives compensation, and is allowed to use the greenhouse. It may mean that the greenhouse is limited in time, such that when the adjoining property is sold, the greenhouse must be removed.

The point is, the court can adjust the situation so it is fair to both parties, so long as it does not substantially alter their existing legal rights. This latter principle significantly limits the court’s powers. It means that justice will be done, but justice does not give the court the power to totally alter the situation. This limitation ensures a fair and practical result, the real goal of equity.

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John H. Patton, a partner at Patton & Sullivan, specializes in business and real estate law at the trial and appellate levels. He is also co-counsel of record in CRV v. United States.

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