partition fence law
It’s time to round up another batch of legal Q&A. Here's a sampling of questions from around the state that we’ve recently received in the Farm Office.
My township recently notified me of having noxious weeds. They identified "ragweed" as the problem, but the Ohio Revised Code's list of noxious weeds doesn’t list "ragweed.” What are my rights? Under Ohio law, you have five days to respond to the township trustees to explain that no action need to be taken because no noxious weeds exist on the property and that plants were incorrectly identified as noxious weeds. Therefore, your conversations with the township trustees should have met the legal requirements because you notified them that plants were incorrectly identified as noxious weeds. Having a written record is always best, just in case there is ever a dispute, so you may want to follow up with the townships trustees in an email, just to confirm that no action need to be taken.
I read that each landowner has a ten foot right of access on either side of the fence row. How does that work? The ten foot right of access is for a situation where one neighbor hasn’t shared in the construction of the line fence. If a landowner chooses to build a line fence and the adjoining neighbor doesn’t share in the construction of the fence. Ohio Revised Code Section 971.08 allows the landowner to enter the neighbor’s property for up to ten feet for the length of the fence to build and maintain the fence. A landowner who stays within that ten feet strip cannot be held guilty for trespassing, but can be liable for any damages caused on the neighbor’s property, including damages to crops.
A neighbor is spraying herbicides on the fence row where an adjoining neighbor is raising organic livestock. Is there anything the livestock operator can do? There could be a spray drift issue if the herbicides are coming over onto the organic producer’s property. The most common legal action for dealing with spray drift is negligence, and another legal theory is trespass. If the drift causes harm, there would be a legal claim under either of those theories and the sprayer could be liable for harm caused by the drift. Before moving right to a lawsuit, however, a letter from an attorney that explains the potential liability for the drift could be helpful. Losing the organic certification would be costly, and an attorney would likely point that out. Those types of letters don’t take a lot of time and wouldn’t be as costly as filing a lawsuit. Additionally, the sprayer’s insurance policy might address negligence for spray drift and could provide a mechanism for compensation to the livestock producer.
We are in the process of buying a farm property to raise horses and relocate a small craft brewery to the location and grow hops and barley for the brewery. Can you provide information to help navigate the legal issues in doing this? Let’s start with two separate issues—the liquor licensing issue and the zoning issue. You may already know that Ohio has a relatively new licensing law that eases the liquor license process for small brewers—the A-1c license, explained at https://www.com.ohio.gov/liqr/permitclasses.aspx. That would allow you to brew and sell onsite if you meet the license requirements.
The zoning question is not as straightforward and instead is an “it depends” answer. Ohio zoning law does specifically exempt wineries from local zoning regulation, if the winery is growing grapes. There is not a similar specific exemption for breweries, though. In some situations, the agricultural exemption from zoning authority applies and prevents the township from prohibiting an agricultural use if it meets the definition of “agriculture.” Some of the activities you describe, growing hops and grains and raising horses, do fit within that definition. Processing and marketing activities, like making and selling beer on-site, only fit within that definition if they are “secondary to” the growing/production activities. Showing that the brewery would be a “secondary” use to the primary production activities could be difficult, and there aren’t clear standards on how to prove which is primary and which is secondary. Some townships have examined amount of the property dedicated to the different uses, some have examined financial returns of the different uses, some have looked at amount of time… it’s a bit gray and open to interpretation.
The other way to be exempt from zoning regulations would be to prove that the brewery is “agritourism.” This requires first showing that the activity is a cultural, recreational, entertainment or historic activity that is “agriculturally related” to the property and that the property qualifies as a “working farm” that is engaged in commercial agricultural production. Townships vary on how closely they examine these different components, but it seems that many are becoming more strict about what is and is not “agriculturally related” to the property. If none of the exemptions apply, whether you could engage in the land use would depend on your district zoning provisions. You’d want the zoning district to allow a brewery activity as a permitted use in the zoning district, or to be able to seek a “conditional use” permit for it.
If someone has a hornet’s nest in the yard in a neighborhood with a sidewalk, is there concern if the hornets were to attack someone walking by? This is one of those “maybe” answers. We don’t have clear legal guidance or court cases on liability for stings in Ohio, and my guess is that’s because the cases may settle out in the insurance process. The hornet nest, though, is probably a natural situation that is less likely to result in liability on the landowner’s part than a manmade condition, especially if the nest is out in the open and easily seen. The law expects people to bear responsibility to protect themselves from open and obvious natural dangers. However, the fact that the landowner knows it is there could be problematic given the neighborhood situation, as in “you should have done something about it because you knew people would be walking by,” especially if it’s not easy for passers-by to detect it or if the landowner knows someone in the neighborhood is allergic to bees. To avoid the risk of potential harm or problems, the landowner could consider either putting up a sign warning about the nest or have it removed. The cost of removal would probably be less than an injury claim or a lawsuit. The landowner may also want to talk with her insurance agent to see if there would be coverage for an incident—likely not, but it’s worth an ask. That might bring the landowner some peace of mind if he or she allows it to remain.
If you have an agricultural law question, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll do our best to provide an answer. We can't give you legal advice,of course, but we can explain the laws that apply to the situation. Also be sure to check for answers in our law bulletins on the Ag Law Library, here on the Farm Office website.
Here at the OSU Extension Farm Office, we get questions about all sorts of topics, but one topic in particular shows up in our inbox rather frequently. Line fence laws regulate those fences, sometimes called partition fences, that are located on a property boundary between adjacent parcels of land. Ohio has had laws on this topic for well over a hundred years, and these laws represent an important piece of history in the development of property rights in our state. While one might hope that by now all the kinks and questions would be resolved, there are still some misunderstandings and gray areas about the law that we grapple with to this day.
In order to help landowners better understand their rights and responsibilities, the OSU Extension Farm Office team has complied a number of resources about Ohio’s line fence laws on our website at farmoffice.osu.edu/our-library/line-fence-law. When the Ohio General Assembly significantly changed the line fence provisions in the Ohio Revised Code in 2008, our director, Peggy Kirk Hall, wrote a number of fact sheets that provide an overview of the changes, summaries of key elements of the law, and also guides for townships.
The Ohio Line Fence Law Fact Sheet provides an in depth look at the 2008 changes. It explains what a line fence is, how costs are allocated, the different types of line fences addressed, special rules for line fences containing livestock, procedures for building a fence, procedures for disputes between neighbors, and more. A shorter summary of that same information is available in the fact sheet titled, A Summary of Ohio’s Line Fence Law.
In addition to the overviews of the law, there are also resources that explain particular aspects of the law more in depth, along with guides for township officials. These include:
- Alternative Landowner Agreements Under Ohio’s Line Fence Law
- Ohio Partition Fence Law: A Procedural Guide for Townships
- Notice of Rights and Responsibilities for Townships
Over the course of the decade following the 2008 changes, a number of questions continued to be asked by landowners across the state, so we compiled a Frequently Asked Questions law bulletin. Instead of only explaining what the law says, this law bulletin takes a question and answer approach that goes through questions associated with scenarios such as:
- My neighbor wants to install a new fence on a never fenced boundary
- My neighbor wants to permanently remove an existing fence
- My neighbor wants to replace an old fence on our property boundary
The FAQ law bulletin also looks at the role of township trustees, and what the law says about fence construction and upkeep.
While these publications cover a lot of information, sometimes we get a new question that has yet to make it into one of our publications. The following represent a few of those questions.
Right to access neighbor’s property applies to fence construction, not removal
Ohio Revised Code § 971.08 provides a landowner with a ten foot right to access his or her neighbor’s property in order to construct a new line fence or to maintain an existing fence. If the landowner or the landowner’s contractor causes damage to his or her neighbor’s property, the landowner will be liable for that damage, including damage to crops. However, as there is a separate statute for removing a line fence located at Ohio Revised Code § 971.17, the right of access to construct or maintain a fence does not clearly include a right to enter onto a neighbor’s property in order to remove a line fence. Under this statute, a landowner who enters his or her neighbor’s land could be liable for trespass.
Written notice is required prior to removing a fence
Ohio Revised Code § 971.17 requires a property owner to give written notice to his or her neighbor at least 28 days in advance of removing a shared line fence. If a landowner or the landowner’s contractor enters the neighbor’s property to remove a fence without sufficient notice, that could constitute a trespass under Ohio Revised Code § 971.17. This notice requirement is intended to ensure that the landowner has a chance to protest the removal or at least discuss the terms of the removal.
Trees on the property line are the shared property of the neighboring landowners
One thing not specifically addressed in Ohio’s line fence laws is the issue of trees on the property line. Ohio Revised Code § 971.33 requires landowners to keep all fence corners and a four foot strip along the entirety of a fence clear of brush, briers, thistles, and other noxious weeds. However, this statute specifically says that it does not apply to the planting of vines or trees for use. Because these are specifically excluded from this noxious weeds statute, the common law as made by courts will apply.
The common law provides that trees on the property line are owned by both landowners and do not have to be cleared from the fence row. This means that if one landowner wants to remove a tree on the property line, that landowner must seek permission from his or her neighbor. Even though the landowner owns half of the tree, the landowner cannot interfere with his or her neighbor’s property interest in the tree. Without his or her neighbor’s permission, the landowner could be liable for removing the tree or even cutting it in a manner that causes the tree to die. Because of Ohio’s reckless destruction of trees and crops statute in Ohio Revised Code § 901.51, a person who cuts, destroys, or injures a tree located on the land of another could be liable for up to three times the value of the tree.
If you have a question about Ohio’s line fence law, let us know, and we will try to find an answer. Much like we tell students and those who attend our presentations, it is likely that someone else has the same question as you. Stay tuned to the Ag Law Blog for more updates about questions we receive about Ohio’s line fence law.
Written by: Chris Hogan, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program
Farmers are gearing up for spring and preparing to plant crops and graze livestock. Part of spring-cleaning may involve clearing partition fence rows at the edge of fields and trimming back overhanging branches above the fence. Overgrown tree branches can affect crops and pose a hazard to agricultural equipment. Removing trees that obstruct the fence row, noxious weeds tangled in the fence, and other unwanted vegetation is a serious matter for Ohio farmers. Ohio law provides for ways to clear a partition fence shared between two neighboring properties. Ohio law also cautions against damaging trees when trimming overhanging branches.
Clearing the fence row
This section only applies to the removal of vegetation in the fence row. Clearing overhanging trees above the fence is a separate matter discussed further below.
A partition fence is a fence that follows the division line between adjoining properties of two owners. The term “fence row” refers to the strip of land that is on either side of the fence. In order to keep a fence in good condition, owners should occasionally clear the fence row of obstructions caused by vegetation. Clearing a fence row keeps noxious weeds, brush, briers, and other vegetation from spreading onto a neighbor’s property. Ohio law provides several methods for a landowner to clear the fence row legally.
The easiest way to clear the fence row is to ask a neighbor to clear his or her side of the partition fence. Ohio law creates a duty for owners on either side of a partition fence to clear brush, briers, thistles and other noxious weeds in a strip four feet wide along the line of the fence, after a landowner gives notice to a neighbor asking them to do so. It is best to be polite, patient, and clear when speaking with a neighbor about when you would each like to clear the fence row. A landowner and a neighboring owner should try to establish a timeline to clear each side of the fence row.
What if a landowner asks a neighbor to clear the fence row on their side of a partition fence and they refuse? Once a landowner asks a neighbor to clear a fence row, that neighbor has ten days to do so. If a neighbor does not clear it within ten days, the landowner can ask the local board of township trustees to arrange for the fence row to be cleared.
After a landowner notifies the trustees that a neighbor refused to clear the fence row within ten days, the township trustees must view the property to determine if there is just cause for the complaint. Next, if there is a cause for the complaint, the trustees will enter into a contract with a third party to clear the fence row and certify the associated costs to the county auditor. The county auditor will bill the neighboring landowner for the work to clear the fence row. The auditor will assess these costs against the neighboring landowner by adding these costs to his or her property tax bill.
Trimming back overhanging branches
Landowners have the right to trim vertically and remove overhanging obstructions from above their side of the fence. Ohio courts recognize this privilege to remove obstructions, but not without limitations. Ohio courts do not permit landowners to cause harm to the other side of the property line. A landowner should be careful not to damage the neighbor’s trees or trespass on to the neighbor’s property when trimming overhanging branches. Landowners may be liable to a neighbor if they recklessly damage a neighbor’s tree when removing overhanging branches.
Landowners should review their rights and responsibilities to maintain fences prior to clearing the fence row this spring. For more information on line fence law, visit the Ag Law Library here.