October 16, 2023
Recently, the Iowa courts have decided some important property dispute cases involving boundary disputes. These include boundary by acquiescence, prescriptive easements, property use, adverse possession and quiet title claims that have arisen in the past few years in Iowa.
Why so many boundary disputes? The short answer is, we don’t know — but there are probably several factors. It could be the increased value of farmland and its increase over the past several years. It could be an increase in out-of-state ownership of farmland and a lack of understanding of Iowa’s unique set of laws surrounding property ownership. Regardless of the cause, all landowners should have a good understanding of their property rights to avoid the issues that are being litigated in the Iowa courts.
Some recent Iowa Court of Appeals and Iowa Supreme Court decisions shed some light on the law in this area. In a case decided this summer, the Iowa Court of Appeals held that a boundary by acquiescence was established between a farm and a neighboring homeowner. The parties treated a fence as the boundary line for more than 10 years. Even though a homeowner later tore the fence down, the boundary line was still clearly marked from farming activities. The key in this case is that the fence line was definite and known by both parties.
Survey says … Iowa Code Ch. 650 allows an owner of land to establish a boundary by acquiescence if the boundary has been recognized and acquiesced in for 10 years or more, even if a survey says the boundary is improperly located. In another case, neighbors owned adjoining tracts of land in a housing development. The plaintiffs sued the defendants, claiming that the boundary was improperly located based on a survey they had commissioned. The court found that for more than 10 years before the survey, the defendants and prior landowners treated the area as their own. This case shows that acquiescence must be mutual. In other words, before the survey, all parties recognized the boundary and everyone believed the area was owned by the defendants. Indeed, the court stated that “Acquiescence may be inferred by the silence or inaction of one party who knows of the boundary line claimed by the other and fails to dispute it for a 10-year period.
Is your possession adverse? In Iowa, if a landowner can prove that they possessed property continuously, openly, exclusively, actually and hostilely for a period of 10 or more years, they can “quiet title” to that piece of property through a claim of adverse possession. To quiet title means to establish and prove an ownership right in the underlying land. There have been recent cases decided by the Iowa courts involving concepts similar to boundary by acquiescence and adverse possession. In Iowa, an easement by prescription is created when a party uses another’s property, creating an “easement” right.
An example is a railroad right-of-way case involving the concept of adverse possession. The parties were neighbors and had a long-standing feud over the use of an abandoned railroad right of way. Abandoned railroad rights of way are oftentimes complicated as to ownership rights because the original easement or purchase by the railroad was so long ago. There may not be many supporting documents.
Here, the adjoining neighbor owned the land on both sides of the right of way and also rented some land from the other neighbor for farming purposes. To farm the land, they needed to run an irrigation system across the property of their landlord and neighbor. The neighbor did not agree with that use of the property and notified their neighbor landowner that the easement was only for ingress and egress purposes and not for running an irrigation system across the property. A lawsuit ensued through the years, and the appellate court ultimately held that the neighbor had established an easement by prescription for more than 10 years and could continue to have access to irrigate.
You may have noticed that each of these cases involves a lack of communication between the parties. If the parties understood their ownership rights or entered into a written agreement, these disputes could have been avoided. It is always wise to head off these issues before they become a problem that leads to litigation and conflict between neighbors.
The best piece of advice I can give you in dealing with the adjacent landowner is to provide the landowner with information in writing so they can review and understand Iowa’s laws and to work with your trusted attorney to resolve the situation ahead of a dispute.
Herbold-Swalwell is with Parker & Geadelmann PLLC. Email her at [email protected].
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