August 23, 2010

Washington's supreme court orders a landowner to sell his property to neighbors

By Washington's supreme court orders a landowner to sell his property to neighbors

Author: Brian T. Hodges

They say that bad facts make bad law.  Well, here’s a doozy.  Noel Proctor and Ford and Christina Huntington purchased neighboring parcels in Southern Washington.  The Huntingtons unwittingly built their home approximately 400 feet onto Proctor’s land.  Proctor discovered the encroachment and unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a settlement.  The neighbors thereafter sued one another, each claiming entitlement to the land. 

Traditional property law provides that a property owner has the absolute right to eject encroachments from his land.  But citing an “evolution of property law,” Washington’s Supreme Court issued a controversial 5-4 decision in Proctor v. Huntington, wherein the majority held that a court’s equitable powers authorized it to alter fundamental property rights in order to achieve just results.  Reviewing the equities of the case, the majority determined that the cost of relocating the Huntington’s home was greater than the value of the underlying land, and affirmed a trial court decision ordering Proctor to sell one acre of encroached-upon land to the Huntingtons.

The dissenting justices characterized the majority opinion as a “wrecking ball” smashing through a landowner’s fundamental right to choose if he or she will sell the property and, if so, for how much.  According to the dissent, the majority’s “balancing of the equities” analysis was nothing more that a redistribution of property, the likes of which should be left to Robin Hood. 

This case has already caught the attention of the Eminent Domain Law Blog and the Supreme Court of Washington Blog.  And Robert Thomas at Inverse Condemnation asks whether the Court’s decision constitutes a judicial taking under the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision, Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc. v. Florida Dep’t of Environmental Protection.

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