Recently, the Rhode Island Supreme Court issued its decision in Clark v. Buttonwoods Beach Association (No. 2018-17-Appeal). In this case, the plaintiffs alleged that they owned a beachfront piece of land directly across from their residential lot on Promenade Avenue in Warwick. The plaintiffs also alleged that they purchased their residential lot because the purchase and sale included the beachfront lot. In Clark, the property ownership claims were premised on to two different theories of land law: acquiring the property by adverse possession, and acquiescence. Did the Supreme Court agree with them?
What R.I. Land Law Says About the Claims
As discussed in our blog previously, adverse possession is a statutory claim in Rhode Island that awards property to person(s) who prove, by clear and convincing evidence, ten years’ worth of “actual, open, notorious, hostile, continuous, and exclusive use of property under a claim of right.” Importantly, and not discussed in detail within our blog post about adverse possession and the Carrolls from Little Compton, a party may “tack on” the periods of previous owners’ adverse possession to their own in order to meet the ten-year period requirement.
In addition to adverse possession, there is the longstanding land law doctrine of acquiescence. This legal concept states that when two parties do not agree on a disputed boundary line, acceptance of a boundary line created by one of the parties for the statutory period is conclusive evidence of agreement over the boundary line. The claiming party must show there was some visual depiction of the boundary (stakes, fences, other markers) and that the boundary so indicated was observed, or inferred by a party’s silence, for ten years or more. Expert testimony on where the boundary line truly exists according to deeds and plats becomes irrelevant by law, because this different boundary line was agreed to by the parties for ten years or more.
The Interpretations of Land Law Principles by the R.I. Supreme Court
The Clark opinion, issued on April 15, 2020, upholds the lower court’s decision in the case. The Supreme Court’s decision denies the plaintiffs’ title to the beachside parcel. The denial is based on the plaintiffs’ failure to prove, by clear and convincing evidence. that all of the elements of either land law claim were met.
First, the plaintiffs did not prove, even by “tacking on” previous owners’ use or possession of the land, that there were ten years of continuous and exclusive use/maintenance of the land. Second, the Supreme Court justices note that the doctrine of acquiescence is really meant for border disputes between adjacent parcel owners. In the Clark case, the facts do not support a claim for acquiescence. Specifically, the Court discussed shrubs planted by the Clarks on the beachside parcel and found that these shrubs were never alleged as a boundary marker.
Any potential claims for adverse possession and/or acquiescence are fact intensive. This means that claims rely almost entirely on the specific facts surrounding the use of the land, the exclusivity of that use, whether the ten-year period has been met, etc., in each potential case.
Do you believe you may be in a similar situation? Reach out to us if you wish to assess your circumstances with regard to these land law claims. Email or call us today at 401.477.0023.