The typical process to acquire land involves a buyer who provides payment to a seller who evidences and transfers that ownership via a deed recorded in a state registry. The doctrine of adverse possession defies that convention.
Five elements of a claim
While each state has laws detailing the specific requirements of adverse possession, a successful adverse possession claim requires satisfying the following criteria:
- Exclusive: A possessor must remain on the property without any others having occupied the same land concurrently
- Actual: A possessor must physically occupy the property
- Hostile: A possessor must knowingly infringe on the property owner’s use without permission
- Open: A possessor must live as a normal owner would;
- Statutory time: A possessor must occupy the land uninterrupted for a specific amount of time.
Railroad right-of-way presents unique set of circumstances
A recent court case in Georgia highlights how these requirements can impact economic development. An estate administrator claimed ownership of a strip of land adjacent to an old railway in Atlanta’s West End neighborhood. Entities in charge of the BeltLine Project countered that the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) granted them the land once the federal government abandoned the railway.
A parking lot encroached onto a railroad right-of-way previously owned by CSX Corporation. The company deeded the land to GDOT in 2001. A federal agency approved an application that declared the railroad abandoned in 2013. The GDOT subsequently deeded the railroad to companies developing the right-of-way.
The court ruled against the administrator for two reasons. First, federal law regulates railroads. Thus, private claims cannot restrict railway use. Second, the administrator did not satisfy the exclusive, public or statutory time elements under state law. The adverse possession requirement of 20 years could not run while the federal agency retained control of the railway.
Old legal concepts operate with equal effect, even if less frequently. Undefined land boundaries or those unintentionally trespassed upon require an understanding of the law. Attorneys with real estate knowledge can provide guidance.