You are here
Fence laws and good neighbors
Few aspects of property arouse more passion than fences,
because fences touch on at least four important aspects of our land. They define and defend property, include or
exclude animals (and the liability that goes with them) and their appearances
is our face to the world. It should be
no surprise, then, that fence laws vary widely in the United States, with
different application and interpretation in federal, state or tribal and local
jurisdictions. Even home owners groups
have covenants defining fences.
Much American fence law is based on English common law that
says an owner is responsible for anything his livestock does. Good fences were important to keep livestock
contained. But, in the American West,
legislators promoted the livestock industry by defining a legal fence and then
saying that if you didn't want any livestock on your property, you had to erect
a legal fence. Only if a cow broke in
could you hold the owner liable. Much
"open range" legislation has been amended to require animals be
fenced in, but there is not the liability that old English common law had if
your livestock strays. In Wyoming,
current law for sheep is "fence in" and for cattle is "fence
out". The range war continues.
Robert Frost's famous poem, "Mending Wall"
includes nearly every aspect of fence ownership. A farmer and his neighbor agree to meet and
repair the stone fence between them.
Some states require that each owner of a dividing line fence it,
assuming, like Frost, that neighbors will work together. Frost notes that hunters, weather and animals
conspire to damage fences so annual upkeep is essential. He wonders how a fence can fall down when
none admit to disturbing it?
"Something there is that doesn't love a wall, that wants it
down." He suggests to the neighbor that
it is elves, but the neighbor doesn't smile.
Does your neighbor smile when resetting a broken off post?
Frost teases the neighbor that his apple trees will not go
eat the neighbor's pine cones, but the neighbor responds, "Good fences
make good neighbors". What is he
walling in, or walling out, Frost wonders?
Property owners often have different ideas of what is important about a
fence and this can lead to conflict.
Reflecting this, it is easy to do an internet search on "fence
law" and find many citations from land grant university, extension and
government sites detailing the fence laws in their area. Many discussions and detailed laws leads us
to speculate there this is a topic of frequent dispute. Obviously, every farmer needs to be familiar
with fence law and how it affects his operation, especially liability. Every land owner and tenant should be
familiar with fence laws and local practice.
Sometimes it's hard to know what is current. As many one-time general farms got rid of
livestock and only raise grain, interior and even line fences are no longer
important and are allowed to deteriorate and in effect change their
purpose. That changes how your neighbor
and you think of them and can lead to disagreements.
Here are a internet sites with good discussions about fence
Robert Frost "Mending Wall" http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/frost-mending.html