Finding woodlot property lines

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Techniques for determining where your property lines lie when they're obscured by brush. September 19, 2001

I need to find where my property line lays in dense brush on a very steep hill, so I can build a fence along it. Both corners are marked with orange flags. But the brush is so thick that I cannot estimate a running line through it. Is there any way to determine the line without cutting down all the brush?

Forum Responses
I would be sure to discuss the issue with your neighbor if possible. Ideally you would clear a small path along the line and mark the trees on each side of the property line appropriately.

I had the same problem last fall and came up with a fix. I have a level with a laser light on it. If you set it on a countertop, it will shine a small red light on the far wall to show the level spot there. But if you take it to the woods at dusk and aim the level like a rifle, the small red light will mark a spot 500 yards away. Set it on a stepladder, point, put on a white t-shirt, get a driver, Tpost and mark a line. My line was the side of forty acres and went over two hills. May work for you.

I've always run a compass line. You need the bearing of the line you are working on, and a compass that you can set at that bearing. Forestry supply shops and outdoor shops should have one.

Follow that bearing, and flag as you go through the brush. There may be some obvious distinctions on the line. There may be marks on the trees, an old fence row, different sized trees or old survey lines. These may or may not be on the line.

Of course you could pay a surveyor to locate the line exactly, just to be safe. It is always best to contact an adjoining landowner. They may know where the line is.

From the original questioner:
The laser pointer idea sounds good. But I would still need a way to tell if I was pointing it in the right direction, so as to end up at the marker when I get the path cleared. The distance is not any more than 50 yards and the fence is only going on the first 50 feet of that. There is a bit of a bare spot about half way - I may be able to set up the transit there and find the one mark - sing around 180 and hope it is on the other mark? (And move the transit till it is.)

If you have a transit, you need to set up on the first mark and shoot your lines with the transit. Use a compass to find north (0 degrees), then shoot your line to your property plat. East is 90, south is 180, west 270.

It is not imperative that cut the actual property line. You can use transit or a level. Chaining isn't that hard either. If it must be done, a surveyor can do just one side. Remember, line trees are loaded with junk

I would say a compass is your best bet, but you must make allowance for declination, the difference between true North and magnetic North, which varies according to your geographical location. Get a book on orienteering. Orienteering will teach you precise location and increase your confidence in travelling long distances in the woods and will be just the ticket for what you are trying to do.

I use a small GPS made by Garmin. It has error correction and is accurate to 5 feet with the error correction or Wais on. The Wais slows the unit down, but it works great. If you need even more accuracy the professional surveyors use a GPS system that has a remote transmitter they set up on the site. Those are good to inches. The transit is becoming obsolete in the surveying industry. GPS is the way to go.

A logger friend of mine went to court over a dispute along these lines. All he did was take the landowner's advice that the property line was correct! It wasn't and he was held responsible for the error. It cost him a lot of time and money to settle. The best way to settle property lines, rather you are friends with your neighbor or not is to get a proper survey done. This will ease everyone's mind about the property line. Maybe your neighbor will go halves with you for the cost if you ask.

I had one trespass where a logger cut 5 acres on another tract because of landowner say-so. Logger was found innocent and the responsibility fell on the landowner. Reason: landowner guarantees title to timber. He designated the cut area, and was, therefore, responsible. Contracts not only protect landowners, but they can also protect the logger.

I have some land in a particular section that was originally laid out in error (too big). When you have it surveyed, the property lines will vary by about 20 feet depending on what corner you start from. It was not obvious until the south center 160 acres were finally cleared a few years ago for pasture. Everybody new the existing lines were wrong (we all had scooted into the timber). However, the surveyors were putting property lines in the middle of people's houses, 20 feet across roads, etc. It was a useless mess. The more surveys we had done the worse it got and there were several people involved. Finally we all got together and set the lines where we could all live with them and no one got shot!

In this case the surveyors were completely useless because they refused to recognize the original error in the layout of the section, just said theirs were 100% correct and the other survey marks were wrong. It was stupid since they all started from different corners and were all off by about 20 feet from each other (depending on where they started).

Normally a survey is helpful, but it is not the final legal word!

From contributor G:
Adverse possession and existing fence line laws also come into play. I'm in the middle of a dispute with the new neighbor who happens to be a developer. According to Michigan law, if a fence has been in place 20 years or more, has always been considered the line, and the land has been maintained by the possessor, it becomes the line regardless of the new survey. That's what my attorney told me. Our fence line has been in place 50+ years and we have farmed right to it. According to the new survey we lose 20 feet of ground over the course of an eighth of a mile.

What has your neighbor(s) been doing to "maintain the land"? If you did not do a survey when you purchased, and the neighbor has been doing real maintenance on the disputed property all this time, then you probably never thought you owned it anyway. If he has not been doing anything, maybe you need a better lawyer.

From contributor G:
The neighbor who owned the property previously used it only for vacations. He never did anything to it. The existing fence was built on what was thought to be the property line in the 1940s by the previous owners of this farm. We (Grandpa, Dad, and I) have maintained this fence and farmed (raised corn, hay, oats and pasture) on the land in dispute. The lawyer seems to know his stuff.