Boundary Disputes and Senior Rights: A Land Surveyor’s Role in Conflict Resolution
Written by: Brandon Lambert, RLS
How would you handle a dispute involving your property lines?
Years ago, an acquaintance of mine — we’ll call him John — found himself asking this exact question.
John purchased a piece of land in Chester County, Tennessee. One afternoon, he found his horses roaming freely, outside of the confines of the property, which was fenced in. How could this happen? It turns out, a new neighbor concluded that John’s fence was on his property, and he took the liberty of taking the fence down.
As you can imagine, John was not happy.
Unfortunately, this sort of dispute, known commonly as a boundary dispute, happens to many property owners. Fortunately, there are laws and standards to help settle disputes like these when they arise.
BOUNDARY SURVEYS FOR CIVIL DISPUTES
The best way to handle a boundary dispute is by doing a little proactive work to avoid having one in the first place. This can be done by obtaining a property or boundary survey. Often, property owners are advised to obtain these surveys when purchasing land or before planning construction on their land. These surveys can determine the boundaries of a property according to laws and standards.
The Problem At Hand
In this scenario, the proactive work had not been completed leading to a disagreement over the location of the boundary. The quarrel began when John contracted services to remove and sell a few trees on his property that began to decay due to insect infestations. After the trees were removed, the neighbor claimed that not only did that piece of property belong to him, but the trees that were sold belonged to him as well. Shortly after this is when the removal of the fencing took place. The fence in question had been erected by John soon after the purchase of his property.
The Steps Taken to Solve the Problem
Both parties’ next steps were to hire lawyers and contract their own surveying firms to review their respective deeds and prepare a survey of each of the properties in question. Part of this procedure required each surveyor to collect field evidence and review the parent deed of which both properties were once a portion. John purchased his part of the parent tract in the ’70s. The neighbor purchased his part of the parent tract in the ’90s.
When tracking down the parent deed, the research was hindered by a roadblock — the Chester County Courthouse didn’t have a record of it. A little-known fact is that Chester County was formed in 1879, born out of pieces of each of the 4 counties surrounding it — Hardeman, Henderson, McNairy, and Madison.1 At that time, a courthouse couldn’t be more than a day’s ride (by horse) away, and the area that is now known as Chester County failed to meet that requirement in any given direction. Therefore, Chester County was created. Given the county was formed a little over 100 years ago, John was likely only the 4th or 5th person to own this piece of property after becoming part of Chester County. He had to travel to the McNairy County courthouse, where the parent deed was filed, to access the record.
The review of the documents and collection of field evidence revealed a discrepancy between the recorded distances and measured distances. Among other found monuments, the surveyors located a stone and an axle at the parent tract corners (see below).
The measured distance between the monuments, 1176 feet, was shorter than the distance recorded in the parent deed, 1200 feet. When dealing with conflicting elements, surveyors follow what is commonly known as an order of importance2 (listed below).
John’s deed conveyed a tract of land with a distance of 600 feet from the north corner of the parent tract. The neighbor’s deed conveyed a tract of land with a distance of 600 feet from the south corner of the parent tract. John assumed he could erect a fence 600 feet from the found north property corner. The neighbor believed his tract extended 600 feet from the south property corner. Finding John’s fence at 576 feet, the neighbor thought it to be an encroachment and took the fence down. The solution to this dispute relied (not wholly) on senior rights.
As Brown, Robillard, and Wilson (2002) state:
“If a person has conveyed part of his property to another, he cannot at a later date convey it to someone else, irrespective of his written intent in a new conveyance. The first deed (senior) has a right to all the land that is called for, and the seller (junior) owns the remainder. If a person owns a remainder, no excess or deficiency exists. A remainder does not have a definite size, but it is “more or less” in character until measured.” (pg. 57)
The documentation confirmed John’s northern portion of the parent tract was conveyed first. The neighbor’s southern portion was the remainder. After the 600 feet were conveyed on the north side, there were not 600 feet left on the south side. In this case, John was found to have a right to a distance of 600 feet. The neighbor received the remaining distance. It took reviewing the parent deed in a separate county and the involvement of the court and two survey crews to determine the location of the property line and the rightful owner of the land. In the end, John and the neighbor agreed to reinstate the fence and recognize it as lying on their common line.
What To Do If You Find Yourself in this Scenario
In general, you will want to obtain a property survey (also known as a general property survey) for a variety of reasons, which include but aren’t limited to Real Estate Transactions, New Development or Construction Addition to a Property, Subdivision of Land, and of course, Boundary Disputes. You can take the first step by contacting a surveying firm in your area.
Chastain-Skillman has experienced survey crews that serve Lakeland, Nashville, Orlando, and the surrounding areas. Our firm does not offer residential survey services, but we do work with both public and private sector clients covering a wide range of project types that include shopping centers, hospitals, business parks, roadways, colleges, parks, airports, and parking lots.
Interested in services? Give us a shout! ↓
Let’s start the conversation.
- Genealogical “fact sheets” about Chester County. Secretary of State Tre Hargett Portrait Photo. (n.d.). Retrieved May 1, 2023, from https://sos.tn.gov/tsla/pages/genealogical-fact-sheets-about-chester-county
- Robillard, Walter G., et al. “Locating Sequential Conveyances: Order of Importance of Conflicting Elements That Determine Land and Boundary Location.” Brown’s Boundary Control and Legal Principles, J. Wiley, Hoboken, NJ, 2003, p. 307.
- Robillard, Walter G., and Donald A. Wilson. “Verbal Evidence.” Evidence and Procedures for Boundary Location, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York City, NY, 2002, pp. 57–57. Google, https://books.google.com/books?id=kAlTYrgMHpQC&lpg=PP10&ots=rSt0qt4bCU&dq=evidence%20and%20procedures%20for%20boundary%20survey&lr&pg=PA57#v=onepage&q=evidence%20and%20procedures%20for%20boundary%20survey&f=false. Accessed 9 May 2023.
About the Author
Assistant Survey Director Brandon Lambert, RLS, has over 25 years of experience on a wide range of surveying and civil engineering projects. He provides technical expertise in processing field survey data and preparing surveying documents for civil engineering and land development projects.
CS is a leading engineering firm headquartered in Lakeland, FL, with satellite offices in Orlando, FL, and Nashville, TN. Established in Lakeland in 1950, our company provides Civil Engineering, Water/Wastewater Engineering, Land Surveying, Geology/Hydrogeology, and Construction Management/Inspection services.
At CS, we treasure our role in creating thriving communities, always respecting the impact our work has on their foundations and their futures. For more information, visit chastainskillman.com.