The headline comes from the Robert Frost poem Mending Fences and it can be interpreted two ways. You either believe that it doesn’t make sense to repair fences every spring that divide you from your neighbour and prevents you from being more co-operative, or you believe that established borders minimize the conflicts between neighbours, and engaging in a joint repair project every spring reinforces your shared value of respecting the border that separates you.
Disputes over property borders in rural Newfoundland are as common as a December wind. If you are not involved and find yourself salivating over a good hockey brawl, you might even sadistically enjoy watching two neighbours move the same wooden pegs back and forth between their two houses as they vie for a garden plot each of their grandfathers fought over as well. Likely, both misread their great-grandfather’s land grant of 1905, which was measured from the high-water mark in the cove that now has a road between it and the two of you.
About 30 years ago, the provincial government provided a window of opportunity for outport folks particularly, to secure registration in an expedited manner for the land they found themselves living on, whether they lived there by way of a deceased ancestor’s land grant, squatter’s rights, or some other bona fide method. Not everybody took advantage of that opportunity at the time.
People get themselves in all sorts of land disputes simply because they don’t pick up the phone and call, or visit, the government land’s office first. Try looking at the maps they have.
Since then, the natural flow of people has seen some heirs of those grants move on, being replaced by third and fourth generation heirs, or newcomers, many of whom would now like to get their property affairs in order. They might start by getting a look at one of the old land grants, followed by putting in their own stakes, bringing in a surveyor, or worse, building a shed or garage on property they think they own. A fence might have explained a lot. Pun intended.
If you love a good land brawl as long as it isn’t you, this is where your viewing pleasure begins. You may as well cancel your cable subscription, open your curtains, and include a ride past the moving property stakes as part of your evening drive up to the dump to look for bears. That’s only if you get that sadistic pleasure spoken of earlier of two grown adults spittin’ mad about a wedge of land that is 40 feet long but only 18 inches at its widest point. You are not like that, but you know people who are.
There’s a way you can avoid all of this, and spend your valuable time looking for the humour in everything, like some of us do. First, don’t call a surveyor right off! That’s emphasized for a reason. There are about a half a dozen different applications for land and you have to determine which application applies to you. Generally speaking, you may be required to get the land surveyed only after your application is approved! Again, emphasis for a reason. People get themselves in all sorts of land disputes simply because they don’t pick up the phone and call, or visit, the government land’s office first. Try looking at the maps they have.
There was a time when we were less regulated, and if nothing ever changed, maybe that would have stayed a good thing. But times have changed, significantly so, and the land you want to live on has likely changed hands before you came along.
It may be too much to expect, but, government could consider sending their land specialists out to all the little towns that see many of their residents squabbling over these ancient land grants, for the purpose of getting ownership documented. If they set up shop with all the different applications and instructions, they would benefit from all the additional application fees collected that they are not getting now which would offset costs, as neighbours, one by one, finally received the direction they need to secure ownership of their property.
Relying on getting it straightened out one property at a time is likely going to take several more generations, with a proportional number of unfulfilling land battles. In an outport, there would be no problem finding someone to billet a lands bureaucrat to accomplish this task, thereby also contributing to reducing any costs to government. You remember billeting, don’t you? Government might actually make money from such an undertaking.
There was a time when we were less regulated, and if nothing ever changed, maybe that would have stayed a good thing. But times have changed, significantly so, and the land you want to live on has likely changed hands before you came along. You have no idea who sold what piece of land to whom out of those grants, and without proper documentation, you can’t know. Nor can you make assumptions, unless you actually enjoy stirring things up. If that’s the case, this column won’t help you. You might want to contact Dr. Phil. He knows people who can help.
In the meantime, we might want to follow Ben Franklin’s adage regarding neighbouring property. He said, “Love your neighbour, yet don’t pull down your hedge.” Good idea. After all, there’s a lot at stake. Sadly, pun intended. Again.
Alex Harrold is a retired teacher and attorney, living in Westport with his wife, Eileen.
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