Some basic concepts in Pennsylvania boundary dispute law

Boundary disputes may be settled in court, but often are also resolved privately between the parties through negotiation or other means.

While we all hope that when we buy land, legal issues regarding boundaries never come up, it is not unusual for adjoining landowners, whether residential or commercial, to find themselves embroiled in disputes about where proper boundaries actually are. Pennsylvania property law based on statutes and cases is extremely complicated and fact based, meaning that the resolution of the legal question of a boundary location depends to a large extent on the land itself, the historical records of transactions involving that land, other relevant evidence like surveys, and the application of legal concepts to the factual evidence.

Shades of history

Obviously, a boundary dispute in a state like Pennsylvania that was one of the original 13 colonies could potentially require analysis of very old land records. According to the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, land records in the commonwealth began in 1682 with the arrival of William Penn. Adding to the potential for complexity, property laws evolving at that time were largely imported from English common law, barely out of medieval times itself.

Practical considerations

In a boundary dispute, a landowner may file a lawsuit in state court like an action to quiet title (decide the correct boundary) or for ejectment (order someone off land not theirs). These trials can be long and complicated, requiring extensive factual and documentary evidence as well as the testimony of expert witnesses like surveyors.

While there are times when such a suit is appropriate or the only option, sometimes it is possible and even preferred to come to a private agreement between the parties through negotiation or even mediation or arbitration. This can save much expense as well as give each party some control over the outcome. In court, costs are guaranteed to mount and the judge or jury will make the legal findings necessary to resolve the issue - and neither party may like the outcome.

Basic legal concepts

If a boundary dispute ends up in court, the main job of the fact finder is to uncover the "intent of the grantor at the time of the original subdivision," to quote a commonly used phrase from multiple Pennsylvania cases. A subdivision often means the land transfer that divided the two parcels with the currently disputed boundary. This endeavor can require analysis of legal descriptions of parcels of land in public records and in deeds, the legal documents used to transfer real estate ownership.

Multiple rules have evolved for courts to try to ascertain the intent of the grantor or to otherwise establish the boundary. Some examples:

  • If the legal description of the property contains internally inconsistent "calls" (things described to indicate property line locations), the court should weigh them in this order of preference: naturally occurring landmarks like boulders or trees, artificial or manmade monuments like stone walls or graves, boundaries to adjacent properties, and last, "courses and distances" like feet, acres and other measurements.
  • A boundary may be established by "consentable line" if two landowners recognized it and lived as if it were the true boundary for 21 years or if they come to mutual agreement of its location.
  • Where a grantor executed two deeds to adjacent property with conflicting boundary descriptions, the first one executed is prioritized.
  • And many more

The lawyers at Caldwell & Kearns, P.C., with offices in Harrisburg, Hershey and Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, represent residential and commercial landowners, buyers and sellers in boundary dispute matters in the surrounding communities and across the state. Boundary disputes are handled when possible through alternative dispute resolution methods like negotiation, mediation or arbitration, but when necessary, through litigation.