Hello All, I was thinking of something my readers might find interesting. And then I remembered some legal research I completed on a property line dispute between two South Carolina residents.
Good Fences Make Good Neighbors
Here is the back story. Robert Frost once said, and I am paraphrasing, good fences make good neighbors.
The following story certainly shows that wisdom to be true. Picture thirty miles into the country of South Carolina, where people own parcels of land for farming. Corn and Cotton as far as the eye can see.
Now imagine this idyllic plot of land with a dusty road shared by three neighbors. Except one neighbor elects to cut a ditch across the road in an effort to prevent others from driving their trucks and cars down the road. And I don’t mean your average ordinary ditch, I mean one strung with barbed wire that is rather imposing. This frame up is just the sort of artificial condition that could cause a car accident or worse.
Next, throw in a property line dispute between the two neighbors and mix it all together. What do you have?
You have the makings of a genuine property dispute that can only be resolved by research, the law, and quite possibly the court system and its magistrates. I recently researched South Carolina law to determine the precedent that governs scenarios such as the one I described above. I will do my best to keep it interesting, but this article is not one for the faint of heart. After all, it is property law we are talking about, not high-speed car chases ending in a big crash and plot twists you never see coming.
A Disclaimer for the Faint at Heart
That introduction was my disclaimer. This article is not for those easily bored.
So what does South Carolina law have to say on the matter of a property line dispute between two neighbors? How do you resolve who owns what? Well, here you go.
First, the title record (where deeds, plats, and surveys are filed away in the dusty clerk of court’s office) carries the day. For example, reliance on an incorrect plat and survey cannot serve as a basis for gaining title to land under the law of South Carolina.
Precedent: Marsh Plywood Corp. vs. Graham
In Marsh Plywood Corp. vs. Graham, the court held that, when both parties claim [title] under a common source, in so far as record title is concerned, the elder or better title will prevail. 126 S.E.2d 510 (S.C. 1962). In other words, the oldest deed, plat, or survey recorded is the controlling document.
In Marsh, the defendants claimed they gained their land by adverse possession based upon an erroneous plat recorded later in the title history. Subsequent plats carried the error forward into the title record.
Upon appeal, the court held that the plaintiffs were, in fact, the owners of title because their title was based upon the most senior recorded title, i.e., the oldest plat on record. That plat revealed their property lines to be the correct ones and showed the subsequent plat of 1925 to be in error.
Adverse Possession: Haithcock v. Haithcock
Another way people seek to gain title to land is through adverse possession. To gain land by adverse possession, the law requires one neighbor to seize land in an “actual, hostile, exclusive, open, and notorious” manner.
In Haithcock v. Haithcock, the Supreme Court of South Carolina conducted an exhaustive discussion of adverse possession, (115 S.E. 727, 123 S.C. 61 (S.C. 1923). In Haithcock, the court states: “… adverse possession of real estate is an actual, hostile, exclusive, open, and notorious holding of land, claiming it as his own. That is what is meant by adverse possession. And if such holding is had for as much as 10 years in a man, then that ripens into a title by adverse possession.”
The court then described how one must hold openly, notoriously, adversely, and continuously: “He cannot succeed in such claim by living on another tract and cultivating for a few years a small patch on the tract he claims, or by going on such tract and sometimes cutting wood or timber, and hauling it off for use on the tract on which he lives, but he must show that he has been doing that for ten consecutive years.” Of particular importance, the court also held that “permissive possession cannot avail against the paper title.”
Again, the court states: “No possession, however long it may be, will ripen into title if it is permissive. If you go into a man’s store or house, and occupy it for 50 years, with his permission, it would not give you any title. Your occupation must be hostile to his right, to his claim, and it must be a continuous occupation, claiming it as your own, to give you title by adverse possession, and not claiming under the party who has the legal title.”
Back to the Case at Hand
In the scene I described above, it was only when the neighbor constructed the ditch and strung it with barbed wire that the possession became truly hostile. One would need to maintain such possession for ten (10) years in the State of South Carolina to gain title in this manner.
Lastly, it is very likely the road in dispute belongs to no one except, possibly, the State of South Carolina. As the population grew in this State, and people desired to develop land, they would often invite the State and the Army Corp of Engineers to create infrastructure such as roads to make the use of the land more practicable.
The byproduct of the landowner’s actions is the State gains title to the land constituting the road in exchange for building it, creating a public easement. It is in the State’s interest to do so because it encourages land development and with it, economic activity. In our case, who owns the road is a non-issue, and there is South Carolina law supporting this conclusion.
Adverse Possession and the Roads: SC vs. Metts
In S.C. vs. Metts, the court held: “It is well settled that no rights in a public street or highway can be acquired against the State or municipality by adverse possession.” citing City of Myrtle Beach v. Parker, 260 S.C. 475, 197 S.E.2d 290.
In Metts, (240 S.E.2d 816 (S.C. 1978) 270 S.C. 73), the state owned an easement across which the plaintiffs built a concrete island consistent with a gas station. The state originally took the easement in 1927. The plaintiffs (gas station owners) built the station in 1930 and maintained possession of the land until 1978, when the South Carolina State Highway Department brought an action to have the concrete island removed.
As noted above, in finding for the State, the court held, “It is well settled that no rights in a public street or highway can be acquired against the State or municipality by adverse possession.” The plaintiffs claimed they did not know about the easement and therefore the court should find for them based on the principle of equitable estoppel.
In response, the court denied their appeals for ownership noting that they (the gas station owners) were on constructive notice of the easement because it was part of the public record and title associated with the land. “The easement was recorded and indexed, and appellants are charged with constructive notice of its existence.” Carolina Land Company v. Bland, Page 818 265 S.C. 98, 217 S.E.2d 16.
A Ditch in the State’s Road
Similarly, in our story, the offending neighbor who constructed the dangerous, barbed-wire lined, ditch is likely trying to get title to land already taken by the State of South Carolina. The road was already on the land when they purchased it, and the easement was part of the public record. Therefore, they had constructive notice of the public easement and could not acquire rights to the road against the State.
So there you have it, a brief and arguably interesting exploration of the law surrounding a property line dispute between two hypothetical neighbors in the soft light of early spring in South Carolina. This public service announcement was brought to you by Hartman Law Firm, L.L.C. a N. Charleston, SC car accident law firm.
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