Boundary Disputes in Michigan
Disputes between neighbors are nothing new in Michigan law. There are many types of boundary disputes that arise between neighbors. Categorizing your dispute, and learning more about it, can help you determine what course of action to take to resolve the disagreement. Here is a list and brief description of the most common types of boundary disputes.
Encroachment/Adverse Possession. This category of boundary dispute arises when a structure on one property encroaches over the boundary line, onto the neighboring property. These disputes often involve sheds, fences, landscaping, boardwalks or decks, and sometimes even larger structures. The injured party can bring an action of trespass against the encroaching party. However, if the trespass meets certain requirements and has been going on for over fifteen years, the encroaching party can claim title to the property via adverse possession or acquiescence. You can read more about this issue here.
Acquiescence. This is closely related to adverse possession, but arises when neighboring owners reach an agreement about a disputed or erroneous boundary line. Find out more here.
Boundary Line Questions. All property parcels are defined by some sort of legal description. These descriptions can be interpreted by a surveyor to place an actual line on the property. In some situations, a legitimate question arises over where the boundary line between the properties is located. There may have been a past error or contradiction in various deeds which creates confusion or discrepancy. Or, past markers placed by surveyors now create a disagreement on the location of the boundary line. What is needed is a “quiet title” lawsuit. The court will determine who owns the property and will enter an order in the chain of title to effect its decision. You can read more about a quiet tile action here.
A variation on this type of dispute is a gap in title, where a past owner failed to properly describe all the property to be conveyed. For example, assume an owner intends to split his land into parcel A and B, but the legal descriptions which create the new parcels aren’t quite the same, and there is a gap in between them. In this circumstance, the gap area was never conveyed, and the true “owners” of the gap between the properties would be the heirs of the original owner. The quiet title action would again be used, but with an added layer of difficulty—one has to list as defendants, and gain service on, the heirs of the original owner.
Easement Disputes. There are many types of easement disputes. There may be a written easement about which the parties disagree. Or, a neighboring property may have been using an adjacent property to gain access (either to their parcel or, often, a lake or river) for a period sufficient to create a prescriptive easement. You can read about these issues on the respective links above, or generally here.
Riparian Rights. Properties adjacent to bodies of water have additional rights known as riparian rights. These govern access to and use of the body of water. Common disputes include: public access via road ends; deeded access to the water by back lots; docks and storage, and prescriptive easements.
Setbacks. A setback is a requirement that structures or uses be a certain distance from the boundary of the property. While the encroachment doesn’t actually cross the boundary line, I include setback disputes in this section.
Setbacks are most commonly created by zoning ordinances. For instance, most residential zoning ordinances require structures to be placed a certain distance from the side, front, and back boundary lines. Setbacks are also occasionally created by developers when they split up parcels of land, and either recorded in the deeds or in condominium bylaws.
In most cases, an adjacent property owner has standing to enforce a zoning setback; the cause of action is usually “nuisance per se”. Issues that need to be analyzed as part of the dispute include: whether the encroachment is a lawful nonconforming use; whether the encroachment can be cured by a variance from the municipality; whether the encroachment can be forgiven under the doctrines of laches or acquiescence; whether the party bringing the action has “clean hands”.
Summary. As you can see, some boundary disputes are straightforward—literally black and white as drawn on a survey. Many times, however, boundary disputes are extremely complicated. If you have questions regarding a boundary dispute in northern Michigan, please contact me.