Line fence law: Farm Bureau gets ball rolling

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SALEM, Ohio – After 100 years of increasing problems, Ohio’s fence law may finally be fine-tuned.
Fed up with the current law, Ohio Farm Bureau members last year decided to create a task force. These nine members came up with recommendations on how to change the law, and delegates will vote on them at the Ohio Farm Bureau annual meeting Dec. 2-3.
If it passes, Farm Bureau will share the proposal with other interested parties, such as Ohio Township Association, for further input. Eventually, Farm Bureau hopes to have a bill drafted and introduced in the state general assembly.
As more people move to the country, they aren’t even aware of the 1904 line fence law, said Ohio Farm Bureau’s Local Affairs Director Larry Gearhardt.
The law says a fence between two pieces of land is the responsibility of both owners. That means if one neighbor wants to put up a new fence or repair an existing one, the cost must be split equally between both landowners.
The catch is that the landowner must pay even if he or she does not own livestock and does not intend to use the fence.
Exception. This law, in Chapter 971 of the Ohio Revised Code, has been challenged many times by landowners who do not think this is fair.
The Supreme Court made an exception in 1969.
It ruled that if a neighbor is ordered to help build a fence, the benefit from having it must be greater than the cost. The matter is left in the hands of township trustees and when their decisions are appealed, it ends up in court, Gearhardt said.
Judges who don’t see a benefit to having a fence are not enforcing the law, which means conflicting practices are in place across the state, he said.
Differences. The task force also found vast opinion differences across the state.
Landowners in southeast Ohio were happy with the current law because they have a lot of livestock. Those in northwest Ohio, however, don’t have as many animals and weren’t happy when they had to help pay for a neighbor’s fence, Gearhardt said.
So the task force came up with a two-part proposal.
The question would be, “Is there a fence currently between the two properties?”
If the answer is “yes,” the current law would hold. But the wording would change from “equal” to “equitable.”
Rather than both neighbors having to pay an equal share for the repair, under the proposal township trustees would listen to the case and assign costs.
For example, if a farmer is fixing his fence and the neighbor does not use the fence or have livestock, the trustees could tell the farmer to pay 70 percent of the costs and the neighbor 30 percent.
If the answer to that question is “no,” there is no fence, new rules would apply. The person requesting the fence would be responsible for all costs.
He or she should, however, file those costs with the recorder’s office. According to the Farm Bureau proposal, if the neighbor later puts livestock up against the fence, he or she would be responsible for half of those costs, Gearhardt said.
Need changed? Gearhardt has criss-crossed the state explaining the recommendations, and the biggest hurdle so far is convincing some people the law needs changed.
Some people are living in areas where the law is working fine and they don’t realize it’s causing problems elsewhere, he said.
Many think the current law just needs enforced, but this won’t work, he said. The Supreme Court’s provision left it in the courts’ hands and their rulings aren’t consistent.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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