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Free Land — If You Can Keep It

Posted on: October 12th, 2016
by David Ganje

Free Land – If You Can Keep It

It seems everyone is looking for newfound money whether in the form of land or the lottery. Let us look at the miracle of “new land” obtained by accretion along a riverbank as a phenomena of newfound money. Property boundaries matter when your land is next to a river. If the river deposits land onto your riverfront by “accretion”, then who owns it? Accretion is the gradual increase to land, notably riparian land, stemming from the movement of water. A meandering river has no master. Certainly man-made law has not corralled a meandering river with anything close to perfection, or to some landowners, with any degree of satisfaction. Questions come up when riverfront boundaries naturally shift due to erosion or accretion.

In Norby v. Estate of Kuykendall, 2015 ND 232, 869 N.W.2d 405, Norby owned land adjacent to the Kuykendalls along the North Dakota-Montana border. Norby’s land was on the eastern Montana side and Kuykendal was on the western North Dakota side, with the Yellowstone River separating the properties. But, importantly, neither party’s deed history described the legal boundaries by reference to the Yellowstone River. Gradually the Yellowstone River moved eastward, eroding land from its eastern bank and accreting it on to the western bank. This “new land” on the North Dakota side made up 96 acres.

Norby brought suit to eject the Kuykendalls from the disputed property and to quiet title on the theory that the disputed land were his “riparian accretions.”

Typically riparian and ownership rights of a riverbank shift as the river moves without considering other fixed boundaries. Nevertheless, since Norby’s deed never mentioned the Yellowstone River as the property line, his argument sank.

Perhaps an even more relevant case is the older case of Perry v. Erling, 132 N.W.2d 889 (N.D. 1965). Mrs. Perry argued that she was entitled to “new land” formed by accretion. She owned land directly east of the Big Muddy originally as a non-riparian owner (i.e. landlocked). Since the original land survey in 1872, the river had shifted eastward eroding other intervening riparian lots and eventually turning Mrs. Perry’s lot into riparian land. Over time the river built up “new land” by accretion over the intervening lots. The Court rejected Mrs. Perry’s arguments by making clear that non-riparian owners, such as Mrs. Perry, are only entitled to the land that falls within their original property lines when their property boundaries were not set with reference to a body of water. The original riparian lot owners however would be entitled to the accreted lands.

These cases raise several important points for landowners who hold title to land near bodies of water. For instance, if your land now has additional riverbank or land because of how the river shifted over time, you may still not have ownership over any of the “new land” if your property description was not acquired with legal reference to a river. Laws that normally give rights to riverbank landowners will not help you in this case. However, if your original property boundary was set by descriptive reference to a river, then you may be able to claim the newly formed land as your own. The law of man does not direct the flow of a river.  So be specific in your land deed descriptions or be at the mercy of the river. A good scrivener (lawyer) is worth a thousand words.

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David Ganje practices law in the area of natural resources, environmental and commercial law.

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