Iowa Fence Law in Action

October 25, 2017 | Kristine A. Tidgren

A case from the Iowa Court of Appeals today illustrates the operation of the Iowa fence law. If they receive a written request from their neighbor, adjoining landowners are required to contribute half of the cost to maintain a partition fence, even when they don’t want to. A resistant landowner found that out the hard way.

The parties were adjacent landowners. A 600-foot partition fence separated their properties. The defendant raised cattle and had always maintained the west 300-feet of the fence. When the defendant’s cattle escaped through the east half of the fence, the defendant sent multiple written requests to the plaintiff, asking him to maintain the east 300-feet of the fence. The plaintiff refused, stating “that’s not what the law requires” and that he already had “too many projects.”

The defendant turned the matter over to the fence viewers who required the plaintiff to rebuild the east 300 feet of the fence. They directed him to construct a “lawful fence” having “five barb wires attached to posts not more than 10 feet apart,” which was the type of fence the defendant had constructed on the west half.  The plaintiff challenged the fence viewers’ order before the trial court, which upheld the order. He then sought review with the Iowa Court of Appeals, which affirmed the district court’s ruling.

The plaintiff first argued that the parties had an oral agreement under which he was not required to maintain the fence. The court pointed out that fence agreements must be written and recorded under Iowa Code section 359A.13 to be binding. He next contended that he and the neighbor should both share in the cost of the east half of the fence since that was the only part of the fence in poor condition. The court countered that the west half was in good condition only because the defendant had paid to reconstruct it. Finally, the plaintiff unsuccessfully argued that the fence viewers had erred in directing him to build a “five barb wires attached to posts not more than 10 feet apart.” He said such a fence was costlier than the lawful fence required by the statute. The court explained that the term “legal fence” as defined in the statute was not a prescription for how every partition fence must be constructed  or  what  fence  viewers  must  require. Instead, the court stated that the law set  forth a  "minimum standard" for a “legal fence.”  The court found that it was not error for the district court to order the plaintiff to construct a new fence in keeping with the style and character of the portion of the fence rebuilt by the defendant.

The court also blessed the fence viewers’ application of the “right hand rule” in this case. As we’ve written before, this rule is not required, but can be a convenient way to allocate responsibility for fence maintenance between adjoining landowners when the terrain is consistent. The right hand rule will generally not work in cases where one portion of the fence is costlier to build than another. In those cases, the Iowa Supreme Court has directed that costs must be allocated so as to "equalize the burden." 

For more detailed information on Iowa fence law, read Iowa Fence Requirements: A Legal Review.

The case is Hopkins v. Dickey, No. 16-1109 (Iowa Ct. App. Oct. 25, 2017).