Local Government Law Bulletin January 5, 2015 Joshua D. Beard

Adverse Possession of Municipal Lands – Status of the Race to the Courthouse

In June of 2014 the Michigan Court of Appeals issued a published decision in the case of Waisanen v Superior Twp, which created a “first to the courthouse” rule for asserting adverse possession or acquiescence claims against municipalities.

As we detailed on our website, in Waisanen, a property owner filed a quiet title action against a township under theories of adverse possession and acquiescence when it was discovered in a newly commissioned survey that the property owner’s break wall and home addition, which had been in place for well over 25 years, encroached on a lake access roadway dedicated to public use. The circuit court found that the property had met the requirements of adverse possession and acquiescence against the township. The township appealed under the legal doctrine that someone cannot claim title against the government through adverse possession and acquiescence.

The Court of Appeals disagreed with the township, holding that if a municipality files an ejectment action to recover possession of municipal lands, the defendant may not rely on adverse possession to claim title against the municipality, but if a landowner first files an action to quiet title against the municipality, the landowner can rely on adverse possession to gain superior title over the municipality. Thus, a “first to the courthouse” rule was established and has been asserted by municipalities and landowners over the last few months.

Now, in the recent case known as Haynes v Village of Beulah, an exception to the “first to the courthouse” rule has been established. In Haynes, the Village of Beulah developed and presented plans to create angled parking, a new sidewalk, and a streetscape in the platted right-of-way in front of the Hayneses’ property. The proposed development affected land in the platted right-of-way that had been improved with a driveway, rock wall, railroad ties, landscaping, grass and trees, and maintained by either the Hayneses or the previous owner of the property since the 1950s and 1960s.

The Hayneses filed suit first, claiming that the Village had acquiesced to their encroachment on strips of land. However, the Village of Beulah successfully raised MCL 247.190 as a way to defeat the Hayneses’ acquiescence claim that otherwise could have been subject to the holding of Waisanen. MCL 247.190 provides:

All public highways for which the right of way has at any time been dedicated, given or purchased, shall be and remain a highway of the width so dedicated, given or purchased, and no encroachments by fences, buildings, or otherwise which may have been made since the purchase, dedication or gift nor any encroachments which were within the limits of such right of way at the time of such purchase dedication or give, and no encroachments which may hereafter be made, shall give the party or parties, firm or corporation so encroaching, any title or right to the land so encroached upon.

The statute does not define “public highways.” The Hayneses argued that the definition did not include village streets and did not apply to unimproved portions of right-of-ways. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that the term “public highways” should be broadly construed to include village streets and that an expenditure of public funds on a road in a dedicated right-of-way is sufficient to constitute public acceptance of the entire width of the dedication—improved or not.

Under Haynes, it is clear that a municipality no longer must race to the courthouse to preserve its claim to lands in a public highway against a landowner claiming a right to land in the public highway under theories of acquiescence or adverse possession. With respect to municipal lands generally, however, the race to the courthouse established in Waisanen still applies.

Let’s start a partnership worth keeping.