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Fence laws and good neighbors

Agriculture.com Staff 07/11/2010 @ 11:00pm

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.

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