The agreed boundary doctrine is very often considered as one of the most straight forward legal doctrines. Essentially, if neighboring property owners agree on the boundary between their respective properties, that boundary becomes the property line, even if one of the parties is encroaching. However, what happens when there is an encroachment and there is no evidence of a past agreement?
The recent case of Martin v. Van Bergen (September 6, 2012, B232570) answers this question, holding that a property owner who unknowingly encroached on a neighbor’s land could not use the doctrine of agreed boundary as a defense to a quiet title action, because there was no evidence of an actual agreement that the fence was to be the boundary between the properties. In essence, the agreed boundary doctrine requires evidence of an actual agreement.
In Martin, the plaintiffs owned a 240-acre parcel in Paso Robles, improved with a residence and a vineyard. Defendants owned a contiguous parcel containing a residence and almond orchard. The parcels shared a 1,300 foot boundary with a common fence. Pursuant to current surveys, part of the almond orchard and the fence encroached onto the plaintiffs’ property. The fence at issue was installed in 1947, and its placement was in the same location as a then existing fence. Testimony was provided that the 1947 fence was installed without a survey, and that in the years since, there was never any disagreement between the neighbors about the fence, nor any uncertainty between the neighboring property owners that the fence was the boundary between the properties. However, in 2005, surveys demonstrated that a portion of the orchard encroached onto the plaintiffs’ property and the relocation of the boundary would cause the loss to defendants of about 8 to 10 percent of the almond orchard.
At trial, the court concluded that the fence was not the boundary under the doctrine of boundary by agreement, and significantly, that defendants would not suffer a “substantial loss” if the fence was moved to the true boundary. The court then concluded that the plaintiffs were entitled to quiet title based on the true boundary.
The doctrine of boundary by agreement requires that there be (1) an uncertainty as to the true boundary line, (2) an agreement between the coterminous owners fixing the line, and (3) acceptance and acquiescence in the line so fixed for a period equal to the statute of limitations or under such circumstances that substantial loss would be caused by a change of its position. Ernie v. Trinity Lutheran Church (1959) 51 Ca.2d 702, 707; Bryant v. Blevins (1994) 9 Cal.4th 47. While the Martin Court did not question the validity of the doctrine, it indicated that it should be not be applied where there is no evidence that the neighboring property owners entered into an agreement that resolved a boundary, where the boundary can be ascertained from a deed or other legal document. Mere proof as to the acquiescence in the existence of a fence, without any other evidence of an agreement, does not establish an agreed boundary. The Court stated that while the neighbors long acquiesced to the location of the fence (and presumably the boundary), “Bryant makes clear that such acquiescence is not sufficient to prove an agreed boundary. There must be evidence of an actual agreement.” Without an actual agreement, there is no “agreed boundary.” As a final item, the defendants provided no basis for overturning the trial court’s finding that they would not suffer a substantial loss by moving the fence to the true boundary.
Fred Pfister is an associate at White and Bright specializing in real estate and business litigation. For questions relating to this article or for assistance with a California land use, boundary, or easement dispute, contact White and Bright at 760-747-3200.