In 2006, Michael Roehrs purchased a parcel of farmland, bordered by one other farm to the north and two to the west. Fencing separated Roehrs’ property only from one of his western neighbors; there was no fence separating Roehrs’ parcel from the other western neighbor or the northern neighbor. Where there was no fence, the properties were demarcated only by the line where the parties each stopped plowing. This plow line was clearly visible because the parties grew different crops on their respective farms.
Prior to the purchase, Roehrs had the parcel surveyed and discovered that his two neighbors to the west had been farming on portions of his acreage, as demonstrated by the plow lines. After the purchase, Roehrs sued the neighbors for trespass.
The neighbors defended against Roehrs’ claim, arguing that they had obtained title to the property in dispute by practical location. The trial court found against the neighbors, ruling that because the plow lines varied every year, there was no "clear and unequivocal evidence" that established the boundaries.
When the neighbors appealed, the Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s decision. Numerous neighbors and witnesses who had knowledge of the properties at issue over the 50 years preceding Roehrs’ purchase testified that the plow line had varied very little — and had never been disputed — until Roehrs purchased his parcel. Witnesses also testified that the practice of marking property lines by nothing more than a plow line was "normal" in the farming community.
The Court of Appeals explained that under the doctrine of boundary by practical location, an encroaching neighbor may "establish that the parties have mutually relocated the boundary between their properties somewhere other than the deed-based property line." To do so, "the encroaching neighbor, or disseizor, must present evidence that establishes the boundary’s practical location clearly, positively, and unequivocally." If the disseizor cannot present such evidence, the property line specified in the deed controls.
The Court of Appeals rejected Roehrs’ arguments that the plow lines have not replaced the property lines by practical location because his fields and the neighbors’ fields "flow" into each other, and because the precise location of the plow lines varies every year.
The court referenced the overwhelming evidence that the plow lines always ran between the same landmarks, as rendering a slight year-to-year variance inconsequential. "Because each plow line has fixed and ascertainable end points, it is not necessary for the line always to have been perfectly straight or in precisely the same position at every point in every year," the court opined.
Roehrs’ expert testimony suggesting that variations in his parcel’s crop equivalency rating could indicate a change in the size of the parcel from year to year was taken out of context, the Court of Appeals found. Rather, the expert’s total testimony indicated that the variations suggested annual changes in soil quality, not acreage.
Additionally, the trial court’s finding that one plow line landmark, a steel post, might have been moved recently based on some photographs of disturbed soil was overturned based on what the Court of Appeals found to be an overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary from witnesses who testified that the post had been in place for decades.
The same witnesses testified that Roehrs’ predecessors in interest had plowed their farm short of the actual boundary line, against their self-interest, for more than 20 years — indicating their acquiescence and acceptance of the boundary by practical location. As a result, the Court of Appeals found that the neighbors had established clear, positive and unequivocal evidence that the deeded property lines had been relocated along the plow lines, and the lower court’s ruling was overturned.