This Land Is Your Land - I Better Keep Off
Originally published by Michigan Farm News on October 27, 2015; republished with permission.
Contrary to Woody Guthrie's catchy tune, there are many good reasons to keep your property "private" and free from uninvited guests: the potential for property damage, theft, and liability for injuries to name a few. The appearance of vacancy and the lack of watchful eyes only increase the likelihood of such dangers. Thus, farmland and other rural properties are especially vulnerable.
There are two related legal actions - trespass and nuisance - that serve to exclude unwanted intruders and remedy other such annoyances. Speaking in generalities, trespass is an ancient cause of action that arises against a trespasser for simply being what he or she is: an unwanted intruder. Nuisance, on the other hand, is slightly more nuanced and involves interference with the owner's "reasonable use and enjoyment of his or her property."
A person need not be a physical trespasser per se to be liable for nuisance, e.g., harboring bees on one's property may become a nuisance to one's neighbors. The following addresses some of the specific protections afforded to property owners under Michigan law.
Hunting and fishing are a common source of trespass claims, and Michigan has a statute devoted to preventing incursions by unwanted outdoorsmen. Pursuant to MCL 324.73102, a person cannot enter the property of another without permission for the purpose of engaging in any recreational activity if the property is fenced or conspicuously marked with "No Trespassing" signs.
The same statute gives extra protection for farmland. If the property at issue is used for agriculture, then the statute applies regardless of whether the property is fenced or marked.
Violation of this statute provides a property owner with a cause of action against the trespasser for $750 or actual property damages, whichever is greater, in addition to actual and reasonable attorneys' fees. Further, a trespasser under this statute is guilty of a misdemeanor, and subject to fines, imprisonment, and/or restitution to the property owner.
Unwanted dogs, whether they are pets of neighbors or strays, can cause damage to property in a variety of ways. They can also be dangerous.
Michigan has a statute dedicated to "Dog Law," which seeks to remedy the problems caused by canines running at large.
Pursuant to MCL 287.277, an unlicensed dog is automatically considered a public nuisance. Further, a licensed dog that "has destroyed property or habitually causes damage by trespassing on the property of a person," is also in violation of the law. MCL 287.286a. Both are grounds for removal or termination of the dog by local authorities and, if applicable, a potential claim against its owner.
Farmland is tempting terrain for the operators of all-terrain vehicles, such as four-wheelers and dirt bikes, which can cause property damage and noise pollution.
MCL 324.81133 expressly forbids the use of an ATV on property without the consent of the property owner, and also holds the operator liable for the actual amount of damage or injury caused by the unauthorized use. Another section, MCL 324.82126, imposes similar penalties for the unauthorized use of snowmobiles.
In sum, keeping "your land yours" and "my land mine" is not only beneficial, but also sanctioned by the law. Relatively minimal efforts, such as posting a sign or erecting a fence, can go a long way to prevent a small issue today from becoming a big problem tomorrow.
As always, consult an attorney before taking legal action.