Often when small property disputes arise, neighbors are able to work things out and everything gets resolved in a calm and civil fashion. But sometimes, not. See, e.g., “Property Dispute Resolved With Chainsaw” (Sept. 29, 2014). A reader in Maine who remembered that example notified me that something similar has happened there, although unlike the earlier case it seems doubtful there are going to be legal proceedings in this matter.
The matter is also an good example of why, if you’ve decided you’re going to be a difficult neighbor, you should probably have the property line checked by a professional first.
According to the Bangor Daily News, in 2012 the Brawn family moved into the house where Mr. Brawn had grown up, in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine. The property once also included about a quarter-acre to the south that had since been sold off, and a small home had been added there. Everything seems to have been fine until 2016, when the owner of the smaller property died. That man’s wife inherited it, and apparently rented it to others. According to the report, “relations have been strained with [those] who have rented or otherwise frequented” the property since. The report doesn’t say who was “otherwise frequenting” the property, but I am speculating it was the former owner’s son, who sparked the most recent dispute.
In April, the Brawns put down some wood chips in the back yard so that a tractor could get down the slope to clean up downed tree limbs. The former owner’s son took this opportunity to be difficult, planting a stake in the ground where the chips were located and saying “this is our property, get your stuff off it.” Believing and/or hoping he might be wrong, the Brawns hired a land surveyor. Turned out he was wrong.
He was wrong by maybe eight or ten feet, in fact, judging from the pictures in the Bangor Daily News report. That’s kind of a lot for a relatively small property, and unfortunately for the man who griped, the real property line ran right through the middle of his garage.
A second surveyor confirmed the result, and by Memorial Day the griper seems to have accepted it. He asked if he could go into the garage (apparently the part over the line) to retrieve his father’s ashes, to which the Brawns promptly agreed. But according to them, he “started throwing trash all over the place and smashing glass and taking bureaus and throwing them outside in the yard.” Fed up with this, the Brawns decided to do something about it. And so the next day, Mr. Brawn took a reciprocating saw and “skillfully cut down the half of the garage that was on his family’s property and left the remains on the other side of the surveyor’s line.” The guy who complained about the property line thus ended up with half a garage (that doesn’t have a back wall).
“There’s been a property-line dispute for a couple of months,” the local police chief was quoted as saying, “and obviously that was the result between Mr. Brawn and the owner of the other building.” Not the most informational quote, but then the police were never directly involved. The chief did say that police were aware of the situation and that they “believe it’s been resolved at this point,” so maybe that supports the view that there will be no legal challenge to the garage-halving incident.
Speaking of garage-halving incidents, I followed up on the 2014 example cited above. In that case, there was a lawsuit, in which the half-garage owner sued the chainsaw-wielder. The plaintiff claimed that due to the passage of time, he either owned the land under the other half of the garage or had the right to use it (adverse possession or a prescriptive easement, for those studying for the bar exam). That case went to trial, and the plaintiff lost, a result that the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed in 2016. “[W]e do not condone the manner in which respondent removed the portion of the [buildings] located on his side of the property line,” the court noted (because he had done that by chopping it in half with a chainsaw), but held that under the circumstances it wasn’t a “trespass” under state law.
But again, before taking actions like these that might have unfortunate consequences, you should confirm that the property line actually is where you think it is. If so, I guess the lesson of these cases is that cutting a structure in half might be a viable option. Not advisable, but it might be viable.