By Margie Bailey Rose
They shoot squatters, don't they? I grew up on western books, movies, and eventually– television. They used the storyline of endless struggle between poor, long-suffering homesteaders and rich, ruthless cattle barons. The settlers always won, thanks to John Wayne and his ilk, which left a distorted view of modern American land law.
American western movies apparently got through the Iron Curtain, because my Russian-immigrant neighbors thought it was perfectly legal to claim the back quarter of my property, since they had been parking their cars on it for three years. My real estate agent let me know the property I was buying included said car lot, and that I should get a fence built to firmly establish the correct property line. I think he might have known that would be easier said than done.
I did not want a range war, so I tried to establish friendly relations with the neighbors by engaging in small talk and compliments. Three generations lived on one tiny lot that had long ago been combined with mine. I was sympathetic, but not to the point of giving them my land, so I suggested to the best English-speaker that we should put up a fence and share the expense. They seemed happy with that and said they would do the labor if I bought the materials– assuring me that they had good skills in fence building. I was skeptical, but agreed anyway to speed my plan for getting the use of the disputed land.
When I mentioned that we needed to look for survey markers to see where the property line was, the grandfather became noticeably less enthusiastic– even before he got the translation. I was sure he understood English. The two men spoke rapidly in Russian. Then the grandmother came out of the house and joined in, pointing at me. I was glad I did not understand Russian. How many bad names might they have for the really unpleasant woman next door? I stood patiently until the son-in-law came over to me. He said the survey markers might be covered by their driveway, so we should just measure the property lines. That was fine with me since I did not want to pay for a new survey. I told him I would get my property description and meet him in front of my house.
It took me fifteen minutes to convince Grandfather and Son-in-law that my land was not measured from the edge of the road since there was an easement setback. We found the survey marker at the end of the chain-link fence and began our measurements. The grandfather checked every move of the tape and we had to do it twice. Then we measured his property, which he just happened to know the length of. They did not say they agreed with me that their cars were on my property, but the looks on their faces told me they knew, and they knew I knew.
In the next few months I tried to open conversations about the fence and was ignored or answered in Russian. Finally I contacted the city to have the cars removed from my lot, and they sent out a lady cop. She asked my neighbors to move the cars and they did– while she was watching. After the policewoman left they quickly moved the cars even farther onto my land.
I called a lawyer and he said I would have to get a new survey since the back markers were covered with asphalt. Shopping for a survey that would not break my bank account got my back up. This was war. The neighbors saw the surveyors and called a lawyer themselves. He sent me a letter ordering me to cease and desist my plans to build a fence as it would deprive his clients access to their property (not true), and since they had enjoyed the use of the disputed land without complaint the entire time they owned their property, they should be allowed to continue that enjoyment.
They might continue to use my land, but I was determined that it would not be enjoyable.
I researched land laws for the state of Washington and case law where I could without joining the bar. The wording was in my favor, since it said to claim the land they must occupy the property and pay taxes on it for seven years or more, and each new owner starts over on the seven years. I would have to convince a judge to go by the letter of the law. Since my experience with judges strictly following the letter of the law is not good, going to court would be a last resort.
My lawyer wrote letters to their lawyer and theirs wrote back, while I–and I assume they–wrote monthly checks to the lawyers. I contacted the former owners of both parcels of land (cousins) and convinced them to write letters in support of my case, however the Russians' lawyer threatened the cousin who had sold the small lot with a lawsuit. He said she did not make it clear where the boundary line was. I tried to convince her that it is the buyer's job to trust or verify the lot measurements, but she said she could not afford to hire a lawyer. I was left with one reliable witness and the cousins calling each other names.
Here is where the Unwelcome Guest comes in. The horse from two lots away got out of his pasture, and since I had no back fence, spoiled my perfectly good evening and most of my flowerbeds and garden. That did it; I was through playing!
In one last call to my lawyer, I let him know that I was at the end of my rope and was going to take matters into my own hands. To my shock, he said that sounded like a good idea. I was speechless. He continued on with comments on how we had gone through all the steps, and now I should just build the fence and see what they did about it.
My kids and I would certainly not be able to build a fence between the time the Russians left in the morning and returned at night, so I called fence-builders from ads in the paper. I warned them that there might be problems with the neighbors, but that I had a recent survey in hand. Most declined the job, but a hungry one said, "OK." The contractor promised that he and his helper could get a fence of the needed height and length, up and solid in 8 hours. And he wasn't afraid of the neighbors if I wasn't. I told him that I haven't sense enough to be afraid of anyone, so we had a deal.
I called a private towing company and made arrangements for them to come tow the cars as soon as I gave the word. Everything was set and I was excited, but my children were nervous. Three of them showed up on fence-building day to try to keep Mom out of jail or even worse– shot by the squatters. Like they would take a bullet for me. Well who knows, maybe they would; I certainly would for any one of them.
The day dawned drizzly and cold– a typical spring day in Seattle. The builder arrived and began to dig the post-holes in locations out of sight of the neighbors. One-by-one the Russians left for school and work with only one car remaining on my property. Hoping no one was left in the house, I called for the tow-truck. They arrived and looked over the situation, then refused to tow the car. Because they would have to drive on the neighbors' property to hook up the car, they could not do it.
What now? I was picturing my fence with a Ford Taurus built into it, when my oldest son said he and his friends once picked up a teacher's car and moved it as a joke. Maybe all of us could just pick up the car and move it off my land. I had no faith that we could do it, but even the old man from two houses down, with artificial knees, put on gloves and choose a place on the front bumper. I told him that I hoped he had warranties on the knees, and moved in beside him. Number 5 ran down to the corner to yell to us if the Russians came up the road, and on the count of three we lifted the car. Four lifts later the car was well clear of the property line. We laughed and cheered and congratulated ourselves all around.
The builders dared not stop for lunch, so I made sandwiches and coffee and they ate while they worked. The fence contractor was finished and gone by five o'clock, and I was raking leaves on my side of a beautiful 6-foot fence when the first of the neighbors drove in. The yelling and screaming in Russian went on nonstop as they climbed on their cars to look over the fence and ran in and out of their house banging the doors. Soon several more cars screeched into their much smaller driveway, and the yelling continued with more and more voices. I continued to rake my property.
For three years the neighbors broke boards in my fence, and I replaced them. They threw garbage and burning paper and wood over the fence, and I threw it back. They played loud music, and I ignored them. Last spring I noticed that it had been a while without blaring music and broken boards. I mentioned it to the man with the plastic knees, and he said the Russians had moved and put the place up for sale.
That's one for the cattle barons.