When you're having a property dispute with a neighbor, it's difficult to know what to do next. In some situations, if you don't enforce your property line you risk losing your rights to the contested land. Fortunately, Rhode Island has well-developed state and local laws on fences, trees, and property lines that can help settle many common disagreements.
Quick Look: Rhode Island Property Line and Fence Law
This chart provides a summary of key Rhode Island laws relevant to property line and fence disputes.
|Boundary by Acquiescence||
|Local Fence Regulations|
Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.
Rhode Island Fence and Property Line Laws Basics
The cornerstone of Rhode Island's fence law is the statute that defines the placement and maintenance of a shared partition fence. This law directs partition fences to be placed on the dividing line of the adjoining properties. The fences must be maintained in good order through the year, unless the parties concerned shall otherwise agree. Rhode Island law also provides a detailed description of how a legal fence is to be constructed. However, this rule only applies to fences located in rural communities not subject to local rules, as well as agricultural lands.
Fence Viewers to Resolve Property Line Disputes
Fence viewers conduct an out-of-court process to settle property line disputes, a process that dates back to the 1850s. A property owner or occupant can appeal to the county's fence viewer to resolve disputes concerning division lines or partition fences. After a 10-days notice to each party, the fence viewer can determine the division line and assign each party their section for maintenance. The viewer can also direct the time within which each party will repair their part of the fence. This decision will be recorded in the office of the town clerk, and will bind all present and future owners and occupants of the lands.
Using "Boundary by Acquiescence" to Enforce a Historic Boundary Line
Rhode Island follows a court-made rule known as boundary by acquiescence to settle some property line disputes. This rule allows the court to enforce the use of long-standing markers recognized by property owners as their boundary, even when a survey places it elsewhere. This means that if neighbors historically recognized a row of trees as their property line but it is later determined that the true line was 10 feet beyond those trees, the court can enforce the historic use of the trees as the "legal" property line.
Trees and Plants Growing near Your Property Line
Any legal discussion about trees and plants must begin by determining ownership. If the trunk or stalk of a tree in entirely within your property line, then it is your property to do with as you choose. If the trunk is growing on both properties, ownership is shared between neighbors and all decisions about the tree must be together.
When a neighbor's tree crosses onto your property, you have the right to trim the branches or roots back to the property line at your own expense. However, if you damage the health of the tree or trim branches on your neighbor's property, you can face a criminal penalty of up to six months in jail. In extreme situations, you may be able to force a neighbor to trim back dead branches if they threaten your property by filing a private nuisance claim.
Dealing with Fences Built by Spiteful Neighbors
Typically, the law does not bother asking about the motivation of the fence builder. However, a fence can be declared a nuisance under Rhode Island's spite fence law if the evidence of malicious motivation plainly outweighs the benefit claimed by the fence builder. A neighbor who is injured by the fence, either in the comfort or enjoyment of their property, may recover damages and seek to have the nuisance fence removed.
Proving that a fence was constructed with malicious intent requires proof of the following:
Get Professional Legal Help with Your Property Line Issue
Property law is complex, and there is not always a clearly right or wrong party. To make matters worse, the longer a dispute goes on, the less flexible people tend to become. When you can't settle an issue on your own, a real estate attorney can help you cut through the emotions and work toward a legal resolution. Get started today by contacting a Rhode Island real estate attorney experienced in fence and boundary line law.
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