For decades, they helped unlodge each other’s docks from frozen Lake Coeur d’Alene in the winter.
Last year, Dorothy and Claude Ostheller even helped neighbors Bob and Marni Jones put in a new water line.
For nearly 40 years it’s been a standing joke between the two families that the Osthellers owned a corner of the Joneses’ kitchen. Her property line cuts right through the corner of the Joneses’ home, said Dorothy Ostheller, 72.
But a recent kitchen addition and new deck has scuttled the once-close friendship between the two summer lake dwellers. The neighbors now avert their eyes as they walk up from their adjoining beaches at Wellers Black Rock Park.
The Osthellers, who farm near Fairfield, Wash., have documents showing the Joneses’ new deck extends nearly 10 feet over the property line. The Joneses’ attorney claims they’ve lived on and maintained the tiny strip of disputed property for so many years that it is legally theirs. Under Idaho law, such a claim is called an adverse possession.
Similar property disputes are cropping up all over rural Idaho because of out-dated, unsophisticated surveys and the rising value of every square foot of lake property, said Kootenai County building official David Daniel.
“Not just around the lake, but in the entire county it’s not uncommon for us to stop the progress of putting up a building because there’s a property dispute,” Daniel said.
Building department officials say they must carefully choose which to enforce, so that property owners don’t use the department to fight their battles, Daniel said. When attorneys begin using legal terms like “adverse possession,” the county usually steps out, chief building inspector Nik Bentley added.
“What we do is wait for the judgment from the magistrate and that’s what we act on,” Bentley said. “It’s a fair process. If we just act arbitrarily, somebody gets hurt in the process.”
But the Osthellers say the county building department, not the court, is supposed to be the regulatory agency.
In the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, many property lines were nothing more than gentlemen’s agreements based on a notch in a fencepost, tree, or other natural landmark.
The landowner who sold the Osthellers their property had agreed to allow the kitchen corner encroachment, but never more.
When the Joneses began building, the Osthellers had a professional survey done based on letters, deeds, old surveys and a notch in a rock retaining wall dating back to when they bought the property in 1953.
The Joneses’ attorney, Jerry Trunkenbotz, maintains many of the old surveys used as starting points for new boundaries were crude and un-scientific, some even drawn up at the local taverns over drinks. Now, the new updated surveys are wreaking havoc on neighborhood peace along many of North Idaho’s lakes.
Adverse possession disputes come up several times a week in Trunkenbotz’s law practice, he said, because there were so many erroneous surveys done in the ‘20s and ‘30s by unskilled surveyors. The Joneses don’t need a survey or a deed to prove their legal right, he said.
“He who uses the land and makes use of it for length of time and can show the other owner abandoned it, gets it.”
The Joneses, who declined to be interviewed, have used a path where the deck now lies for years. The Osthellers first became concerned and had their property surveyed when the Joneses began extending their kitchen and building the deck around the disputed kitchen corner.
After the Osthellers’ continued protests, the Joneses offered to buy the land twice over the course of the year, once for $5,000 and again for $8,000. The Osthellers refused based on an appraisal that valued the land at $12,000.
Meanwhile, the Joneses continued to get building permits based on the fact that they were “negotiating” for the land.
“It is lovely,” Dorothy Ostheller said. “It’s just that it’s on our property.”
This June, the county sent the Joneses a letter asking that they remove their deck to the property line. But when Ostheller met with the building and planning directors last week she was told she would have to sue.
“They said they can’t get in the middle of a dispute and I said ‘You should have been in the middle of it and stopped it from the beginning,”’ said Dorothy Ostheller.
“The county just let them keep on building,” Dorothy Ostheller said. “They just act like I’m a bump on a log.”
The county does prosecute some cases, Daniel said, especially flagrant violations. But it has to strike a balance between allowing neighbors to settle on their own and intervening when necessary.
“I’d rather work with people rather than be a policing force,” Bentley said.
“The sad part is you have two neighbors that are at each other over 10 feet of deck area and these people have lived with each other for 30 or 40 years.”
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