Minnesota Boundary Dispute – Doctrine of Practical Location Applied

May 14, 2010 | Erin Herbold


In Iowa, the doctrine of “boundary by aquiescence” or “boundary by practical location” is a  longstanding legal principle that is routinely addressed by the Iowa courts. The Iowa Code specifies that if adjacent landowners treat a line as the boundary for 10 or more years, that line becomes the true boundary. Minnesota courts have also adopted the legal concept of “boundary by practical location,” but landowners must satisfy a more-lengthy time frame to establish the new boundary- 15 years or more.

Here, a Minnesota farmer purchased a parcel of crop ground in 2007.  A survey conducted by the landowner before the purchase indicated that his neighbors to the north and to the west had been raising crops on land that the survey showed was his property. The only physical “demarcations” between the landowner and his neighbors were “plow lines”- lines at which each party stops plowing their own field- and “end points” indicated by landmarks such as steel posts. The plow line was clearly visible because the landowners each planted different crops.  The neighbors had been farming and using the “plow line” as the boundary for more than 20 years before the landowner’s purchase of the parcel.

Unhappy about the encroachment, the landowner sued his neighbors for trespass.  Several prior tenants and prior landowners testified, at trial, that the “plow line” had not varied with any significance for at least 20 years. Testimony indicated that there were “slight” variations in the boundary through the years and with different tenants and owners, but these changes were commonly accepted. Witnesses also testified that it was a common practice amongst the farmers in the area to farm without fences (there was not a large livestock presence in the area.) Despite this testimony, the trial judge determined the plow lines boundary were not “fixed” and varied from year-to-year. Thus, the neighboring landowners had not sufficiently established the practical boundary location by “clear and convincing evidence.” The neighbors appealed.

On appeal, the Minnesota Court of Appeals disagreed with the trial court’s assessment and found that the neighboring landowners had established the practical boundary location through the testimony of witnesses that indicated that the plow lines were “ascertainable and never varied to a legally significant degree.” The appellate court indicated that under prior Minnesota case law, “an encroaching neighbor may establish that the parties have mutually relocated the boundary between their properties somewhere other than the deed-based property line.” The case law further stated that evidence of the boundary by practical location must be “clearly, positively, and unequivocally” demonstrated through evidence.  Based upon witness testimony, the appellate court found that the variations in the “plow lines” from year-to-year were inconsequential. The court pointed out that there were sufficiently visible and fixed “end points” in the practical boundary lines that were visible to all parties involved. “And because each plow line has fixed and ascertainable end points, it is not necessary for the line always to have been perfectly straight or in precisely the same position at every point in every year.”

The appellate court did address the new landowner’s concerns about the “meandering” boundary line, his belief that the neighbors were taking advantage of his land’s higher Crop Equivalency Rating (CER), and his concern that the practical boundary line would adversely affect his parcel’s high CER. The court flatly rejected these arguments and indicated that the CER evaluation was very complex and the boundary location was only a minute part of the overall evaluation. The variation in field size was so small that there was no good way to prove that the slight difference in size contributed to a fluctuating CER. Thus, the appellate court sent the case back to the trial court judge to determine the correct boundary location as indicated by the parties’ usage of plow lines for over 20 years. 

The opinion is designated as not for publication.  Roehrs v. Rasmussen, A09-1354, 2010 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 424 (Minn. Ct. App. May 11, 2010).