Line fence law not always straight-forward

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URBANA, Ohio – Many rural landowners’ introduction to Ohio line fence law is a rude awakening.

While there are plenty of good reasons for the law, it does hold some stipulations that could, for example, force a neighbor to pay for repairing a fence that a landowner didn’t want put up in the first place.

Like it or not, Ohio law generally requires both landowners to equally share the costs of constructing and maintaining a fence. That principle applies even if one of the landowners doesn’t think a fence will benefit his or her property.

“It’s a quirky little area of the law,” said Ohio State University Extension’s legal educator, Peggy Kirk Hall. “The law has been tested as to whether it is constitutional, and courts have always upheld it.” Interpretations shifting. However, line fence law is evolving, and courts are increasingly addressing its perceived unfairness, Hall said.

Courts may recognize a cost-benefit standard to relieve a landowner from paying for the fence. The landowner must show evidence of the property value before and after construction of the fence. If the value of the property did not increase in proportion to the cost of the fence, the landowner may not legally be obligated to share the payment for the fence.

Line fence law only applies in rural areas, even when the properties aren’t intended for agricultural use. An exception would involve rural lands laid out in lots according to Ohio’s subdivision laws.

Purpose. The law does serve good purpose, Hall said. “For example, without the line fence law we would undoubtedly see ‘double’ fences on adjacent properties, and inadequate or dangerous fences. There would be confusion over property lines. There would be no mechanism for ensuring maintenance of existing fences. And there would be no process for resolving rural fence disputes.

“I believe the benefits of the law outweigh its negatives.”

Both benefit. Still, portions of the law might seem harsh or unfair. But the courts assume a fence benefits both parties. Even if livestock aren’t involved, courts assume the landowners benefit because a fence deters trespassing. If one of the landowners wants to install a fence or fix an existing once, the law would apply to that situation.

However, the law doesn’t stop there. It also dictates what kind of fences can be built. Prohibited are fences consisting entirely of barbed wire or electric fencing, unless both landowners consent to it.

Also prohibited are living fences, except for those planted in osage or blackthorn.

The landowners are also required to keep the fence free of certain types of vegetation within 4 feet of it. However, this is not usually a problem, unless one of the neighbors complains.

Township trustees’ role. If a landowner refuses to pay either the costs of a new fence or repairs made to an existing one, then the township trustee can be called to enter the picture.

The aggrieved party can call for the trustee to conduct a “fence viewing.” The viewing occurs 10 days after the trustee notifies the parties, and each landowner can be present.

The trustee’s decision, a written “assignment” allocates the costs. If necessary, the trustee can order a third party to build a fence and assess a share of the costs as a tax against the contrary landowner’s property.

Property line changes. Prior landowners and old surveys sometimes located the fence off the actual property line. If a current survey reveals a misplaced fence, the landowners can treat the line fence as the actual boundary, or they can decide how to share the costs of moving it to the intended line.

In the former case, a mutually respected boundary can become the actual property line after 21 years.

Line fence law didn’t always seem to be such an obscure oddity to Ohio rural residents, Hall said. Older farmers are probably more aware of it from the days when most farms had livestock.

However, past agreements based on a grandparent’s handshake tend to be forgotten as lands pass through generations.

The increased urban-to-rural migration in recent years has added another dimension to line fence law. A resettled urbanite can be shocked to find that rural living is not as regulation-free as he or she thought.

To learn more. For more information call your county extension office and request the OSU Extension Fact Sheet ALS-1001-00, Ohio Line Fence Law. It is also available online at http://ohioline.osu.edu/als-fact/1001.html.

Landowners can also read the provisions of line fence law, Chapter 971 of the Ohio Revised Code, at this Web site: http://onlinedocs.andersonpublishing.com/revisedcode.

(The author is an extension agent for agriculture and natural resources in Champaign County.)

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