Neighbors Use Centuries-Old Law to Try to Acquire Next-Door Land

Neighbors Use Centuries-Old Law to Try to Acquire Next-Door Land

Neighbors use centuries-old law to try to acquire next-door land

By MIKE WIGGINS
The Daily Sentinel

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Drawn by the abundant recreational opportunities, Mark and Lori Heberle and their two sons packed up their kayaks and fishing gear and moved to Grand Junction from New York two-and-a-half years ago.

They bought a fixer-upper on nearly two acres on a quiet Redlands street and set about a reclamation project. They forked out $40,000 to gut and rebuild virtually the entire house and add a patio. They cleared the yard of several large brush piles and other waste and shored up an irrigation ditch that had devolved into a swamp.

“We’ve put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into that place,” Mark Heberle said.

Little did the Heberles know the greatest hassle they would encounter in establishing their lives in a new place would be a strip of land roughly 200 feet long and 20 feet wide.

The family is locked in a dispute with mother and son neighbors Donna and Greg Campbell over ownership of that land. The fight centers on a legal doctrine known as “adverse possession,” a little-known, centuries-old law that, in Colorado, lets someone who uses another’s property for 18 years exclusively without objection take control of the land under certain circumstances.

The situation has caught the attention of Mesa County code-enforcement officers, sparked a confrontation in which Mark Heberle claims Greg Campbell threatened his life and cost the Heberles thousands of dollars to defend property to which they cannot fathom someone else is laying claim.

“The idea that it could happen is just amazing,” Mark Heberle said on a recent morning while sipping coffee in his and Lori’s kitchen. “There’s a right and a wrong, and you know what it is.”

The Campbells’ attorney, William DeFord, insists his clients are not making an audacious claim to the land. He says they have used the property for years and believe they are entitled to it.

“This isn’t some land grab where someone is trying to take someone else’s property,” DeFord said. “This is a legitimate dispute about where the property line is and how that relates to the historical uses of the property.”

The land in question forms the western boundary of the Heberles’ property at 131 Columbine Drive. The Campbells’ property is immediately to the east at 2276 Broadway. Mesa County once contemplated building a road on the land to access a subdivision but chose instead in 1983 to vacate the right of way there. The land contains a 10-foot easement to allow utility companies to access a telephone pole.

Heberle, a 40-year-old heating and cooling system technician, said he never concerned himself with the precise location of the property line until about this time last year when he saw people pulling items out of a large shed on the Campbells’ property — vehicles, boats, campers, machinery, appliances, farm implements and scrap metal. Many of the items were unloaded onto the Campbells’ property, but some were moved onto his property and remain there today.

One day in January, while his children were sledding down a hill in the yard, he said a man backed up a truck close to the lot line and began tossing out scrap iron.

Heberle said he approached the Campbells three days later and asked them to put up a privacy fence. Besides not wanting to look at something he considered unsightly, he said he had concerns about strangers who were constantly coming and going from the Campbells’ property being close to his children and their friends while they play in the back yard.

After the Campbells refused to put up a fence, Heberle sent a letter later that month to Donna Campbell, along with information about the county’s land-use codes, expressing his frustration over the growing collection of items in her yard. He also filed a complaint with the county Department of Planning and Economic Development, alleging the Campbells’ junk was on his and their properties.

The county sent letters to the Campbells and the Heberles asking them to remove the junk on their respective properties. So far, nothing has changed.

Donna Ross, county development services and code enforcement director, said the Campbells and Heberles have until the end of the month to dispose of the junk. If they don’t, she said the county has a number of options it can exercise, including writing a second letter requesting voluntarily compliance or issuing a notice of violation.

“Our first focus is always to work with the property owners and try to get voluntarily compliance,” she said.

If the junk remains on the properties, Ross said the county could take the Campbells and Heberles to court and pursue misdemeanor charges that could result in fines for each day they are out of compliance with county codes.

Heberle said he thought at one point that a resolution could be on the horizon when he said Donna Campbell told him she was going to pay for a survey to determine property lines. Then she said she and her son planned to claim ownership of the land through adverse possession.

Heberle paid for a surveyor who concluded the property line followed a line of telephone poles and placed a series of stakes in the ground. Heberle says that survey, along with deeds and tax records, definitively show he owns the land.

DeFord, though, is challenging the surveyor’s findings. He said one of the telephone poles, which he claims the surveyor used as a survey monument, was moved years ago onto the Campbells’ property, making it less clear where the lot line is.

Beyond that, he said the Campbells have used the property for “20 to 30 years” without a challenge.

“We’re just trying to figure out where the property line is,” DeFord said. “The Campbells have always used this driveway as their own and never knew of any objection.”

Heberle said the previous land owners are dead, so he doesn’t know what their relationship with the Campbells was like or whether the issue of adverse possession was ever raised with them. But he says several people in the neighborhood have traversed the land for years to access irrigation water, a fact he believes diminishes the Campbells’ argument that they have used the land exclusively.

Unable to settle their differences, the Campbells and Heberles hired attorneys. Over time, Heberle said, things have grown acrimonious.

In April, Heberle confronted Greg Campbell after he said Campbell was erecting a fence on Heberle’s property. He said Campbell responded by grabbing a pair of lineman’s pliers, walking toward him and yelling at him, cursing and threatening to kill him.

“He was screaming everything you can possibly imagine,” Heberle said.

Heberle called the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department and filed a report. Deputies contacted Campbell, who denied threatening to kill Heberle but admitted saying, ‘A good New Yorker is a dead New Yorker!” a deputy wrote in a report. Deputies told Campbell that constituted a threat, and that he could be charged with harassment if it continued.

The Campbells did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Last week, DeFord sent an offer to the Heberles and their attorney, Keith Boughton.

“I think we’re pretty close to working out a settlement,” DeFord told The Daily Sentinel.

Heberle, though, said he has no interest in DeFord’s proposal, which he said calls for building a fence on the Heberles’ side of the easement and asks the Heberles to evenly split the cost.

“I’m thinking, ‘What, you’re going to take my land and you want me to pay for half of it?’” Heberle said.

Tired of waiting for a resolution, Heberle said he planned on Saturday to begin digging post holes for a fence that he will build where his records show the lot line exists.

“I’ve tried to be nice about this and be a good neighbor, but as time goes on, I feel more and more that I’m getting taken advantage of,” he said, estimating he will spend $4,000 to $5,000 on legal fees and about as much on the fence.

Heberle said he wants others to be aware that they could encounter the same plight he and his family have.

“People need to know that they may not know their neighbors as well as they think,” he said.

Mike Wiggins can be reached via e-mail at .