In a case reported in November 2016 involving the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), the Commonwealth Court reiterated important principles relevant to boundary disputes. See Long Run Timber Co. v. Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources, 145 A.3d 1217 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2016). The Court’s opinion was authored by the Honorable Renée Cohn Jubelirer, Commonwealth Court Judge, formerly an attorney in the Lehigh Valley and member of the South Whitehall Township Board of Commissioners.
For a variety of reasons, disagreements sometimes exist as to the boundary between adjoining parcels of land. It is common for property descriptions in deeds to use “courses and distances,” as well as “monuments.” “Monuments” are visible markers or indications left on natural or artificial objects indicating the line of a survey. In modern subdivisions, it is common for local government to require concrete monuments be set in order to avoid future boundary disputes, and also to establish the edge of public road rights-of-way. This is a good example of an artificial, or manmade monument. Examples of natural monuments could be a boulder, a tree or the edge of a water course. However, trees eventually die and disappear, and water courses can change their courses over time. Not surprisingly then, there will be times when natural monuments cannot be relied on. This can lead to uncertainty and disagreement about a property boundary.
The courts have established a hierarchy when there is inconsistency between various indicators of a property boundary. The general rule of hierarchy would be first natural monuments, then followed by artificial monuments, adjacent boundaries, and finally courses and distances. The purpose of this hierarchy is to ascertain the intention of the parties when the boundary was first established by subdividing the parent tract of land.
Courses and distances can differ. Modern property descriptions generally involve metes and bounds legal descriptions established by modern survey equipment (e.g. 210◦ for 87.5 feet). Some older property descriptions may rely on forms of measurement no longer used, such as “perches” and “rods.” In fact, perches can also be used as a square measurement (like square feet or acreage today), which sometimes compounds confusion.
When a boundary dispute exists between property owners, essentially there are three choices: ignore it; litigate it, typically in the context of a “quiet title action” or “ejectment action”; or settle the matter, which typically is referred to as a consented or consentable boundary.
It also is possible to lose some or all rights to one’s own land based on several different legal concepts that will not be addressed here. These most notably include adverse possession prescriptive easement, which will be the subjects of future blogs.