Property Boundary Disputes
One of the most frequent questions that property owners ask of the Assessor is the location of the boundary between their property and that of a neighbor, or the location of their property line in relationship to the edge of a public right of way, such as a street. The issue often arises because of a dispute over the location of a fence, contested use of a piece of land or clarification of setbacks for new construction. When two adjoining owners are involved, boundary disputes can be very traumatic and often create tense situations and bad feelings.
Property boundaries are established by the private sector in two primary ways. They are based on filed subdivision and parcel maps or records of survey prepared by engineers or land surveyors (e.g., Lot 5 of Bueno Park Subdivision filed at Book 12 of Recorded Maps Page 15 Napa County Official Records). The Public Works Director of Napa County and of each of the municipalities review and approve subdivision and parcel maps and the County Surveyor does the same for Records of Surveys, but these reviews are for quality control only. None of those officials establish the boundaries of properties.
Boundaries are also described in deeds by metes and bounds descriptions, which can refer to a land-mapping system from the Mexican era in California using Ranchos, or to another system developed by the Federal Government consisting of Townships, Ranges and Sections, (e.g., the southwest one-quarter of Section 15, Township 5 North, Range 3 West). Metes and bounds descriptions are also created by surveyors or engineers describing property by a series of bearings and distances, i.e., commencing at a large oak tree and then bearing South 28 degrees 58 minutes 45 seconds East 146.7 feet to a rock pile, thence bearing North 60 degrees 27 minutes 2 seconds East 205.46 feet to the center of the creek, etc. Assessor parcel maps show parcels, whether created by filed map or by deed description. However, assessor parcel maps are for assessment purposes only and do not establish boundaries.
Only a Judge Can Decide
Property boundaries are exclusively a private matter and cannot be determined just by referring to subdivision, parcel or assessor maps. Where the question involves the location of a private property line adjacent to a public street or other right of way, the municipality or county can be contacted regarding the centerline and width of the right-of-way. Property owners who wish to determine a boundary must refer to the private sector, using title companies or surveyors or engineers whose job is to locate boundaries. Disputes over boundaries that cannot be mutually resolved by the property owners with the help of the title companies, private experts, attorneys or mediators have to be referred to court, because the only outside party who can settle a contested boundary dispute wears a black robe.
Technology Can Help, but History Rules
With the advent of more precise surveying equipment and satellite-guided location finders, the old image of the surveyor crawling through the brush dragging a chain from one tree to another to locate a boundary has changed. Satellite measurements accurate to as close as one meter often show discrepancies in surveyed lines established even 25 or 50 years ago that could significantly change the location of property boundaries. However, until a new system of property description based on this more accurate system is recognized by the Legislature, courts often uphold the boundaries established the old-fashioned way. Disputes over boundaries and the right to continue using land are often resolved in court by giving priority to historic occupancy and use under the legal doctrines of agreed boundaries, prescription and adverse possession.