SALEM, Ohio — Ohio’s fence law — the bane of many unneighborly fights that resulted in bad blood, gunfire or calls to the sheriff — was updated last week in an effort to make the law more clear-cut and easy to swallow.
The original line fence law, which dated back more than 100 years, needed to be more objective and state when and how much fence a landowner was required to build, according to Larry Gearhardt, director of local affairs for the Ohio Farm Bureau.
“There were complaints and [court] cases about this stuff every other week or so,” Gearhardt said.
Ohio’s line fence law dates back to when Ohio farmers’ livestock roamed free. At that time, a farmer’s neighbors had the responsibility to fence livestock off their property.
With time, what was once a “fencing out” law became a “fencing in” law, and farmers who failed to build and maintain their fences found themselves paying for property damages and arguing with adjoining landowners over both parties’ responsibilities.
“The old law was massively old,” said Emily Pettigrew, a legislative aide for Rep. Gibbs.
“There were a lot of complaints about the line fence, and it wasn’t an efficient or effective system.”
The new law provides a two-pronged approach to the fencing issue, according to Larry Gearhardt.
If a fence is already in place, property owners on both sides of the fence share the cost of upkeep in an equitable, not equal, manner.
In the case of a dispute, township trustees and courts are charged with assigning what’s equitable and can use guidelines set by the law to make that decision.
If only one landowner needs and builds a completely new fence, he or she is 100 percent responsible for the cost and can file an affidavit with the county recorder to note what was spent to build the fence.
If the neighbor, who didn’t pay for the construction, or his heirs take advantage of the fence line in the next 30 years, he must pay a portion of the cost.
The 30-year figure was used since that’s the estimated life span for a fence, Pettigrew said.
If a farmer removes a fence and doesn’t replace it within a year, as long as he or she files an affidavit with the county recorder, he can fall back on shared responsibility if the fence is replaced within 10 years. If no affidavit was filed, and the landowner wants to replace the fence, he or she must bear the full cost.
Under decades-old law, adjoining landowners were each responsible for half of the cost to build and keep up a fencerow, regardless of whether each owned livestock.
Then, a 1969 Supreme Court case determined that a fence was property interest, and that a person can’t be told to build or maintain a fence unless his benefit exceeded the cost, according to Gearhardt.
The statement of what benefit a person gets from a fence was questionable and confusing, even recently.
“Judges felt that if a person didn’t have livestock, there was no benefit from having a fence,” Gearhardt said, noting that fencerows are often also visual markers of property lines between neighbors.
Many people in southeast Ohio “live and die by the line fence law” and in northwest Ohio, many farmers don’t want fences because they interfere with moving large pieces of equipment, according to Gearhardt.
Any provisions of the new law can be overridden by a signed written agreement between both landowners, according to Gearhardt.
The new law also provides landowners recourse in disputes either by taking the issue to township trustees, which was the old method, or by going directly to the common pleas court.
The law also allows a property owner a 10-foot leeway onto neighboring property while building a fence, and makes it a criminal offense to interfere with fencebuilding.
“We have to stress to people moving to the country that you have a responsibility for the fence. You’ll know it by seeing [a fence] in existence when you move in or you’ll see the affidavit on your title search. It’s all about notice and education,” Gearhardt said.
The law goes into effect July 27, according to Pettigrew.
Landowners who have removed a fence within the past two years and want the cost of any replacement fence to be shared with the adjacent landowner have one year to file with county recorders. If nothing is filed with the county, and a landowner rebuilds the fence, he must do it completely at his own expense.