State law forcing neighbors to share fence cost causes strife

2011-10-12T16:30:00Z State law forcing neighbors to share fence cost causes strife By Deb Nicklay, Lee Enterprises Iowa Farmer Today
October 12, 2011 4:30 pm  • 

A Grafton couple is bristling under the weight of an Iowa law — and their neighbor’s insistence they pay half of the cost of his fence.

Julie and Brent Kuntz say Merlin Bartz — who is also a state senator from District 6 — should pay for his own fence.

“The law needs to be changed, not exploited,” Julie Kuntz said.

However, Bartz said he is just following a law he said has worked well for many years.

Iowa’s fence law says adjoining landowners jointly own partition fences.

If one of them wants to build a fence, their neighbor whose land the fence abuts must pay half of the cost or erect half of the fence.

BARTZ SAID a paddock in a rotational grazing system for his cow-calf operation could not be used if not fenced.

He has also been asked by his other neighbors to pay for his half of their fences.

“So, I am one that has to do this, too,” he said.

But, Julie Kuntz said it is an archaic law, drafted at a time when “everyone had livestock,” she said.

“Today, there are more (animal) confinements and lots; it’s not like it once was,” she said.

If there must be a law, she said, it should only apply to two adjoining landowners who both own livestock.

Bartz said he has tried to be a good neighbor by taking down trees and clearing brush from the area where the Kuntzes have been asked to install fencing.

KUNTZ AND her husband are crop farmers who, she said, see no benefit to having the fence.

She estimated her family’s cost will be about $1,100 for building 350 feet of the 700-foot fence.

After a discussion with a township trustee — townships are entrusted to settle disputes that arise from the fence law — Union Township trustees held a  hearing on the issue Oct. 6 in the Worth County Courthouse.

A decision by the trustees is pending.

If the Kuntzes do not agree with the decision they may appeal in Worth County District Court.

The fence law is not a law without challenges.

Iowa attorney David S. Steward, writing in the Drake Law Review in 1995, said the fence law served a broad public interest in the 19th century.

“HOWEVER, WITH changing land use patterns, this is not the case today. Courts can no longer assume that the fence law affects livestock owners almost exclusively,” he wrote in an opinion.

Still, the law in 2001 was upheld from challenge by the Iowa Supreme Court.

Failure to obey the current law results in fence costs being assessed to property taxes.

Worth County Attorney Jeff Greve said in his 10 years in his position, he has heard of two disputes over fences, including the Kuntz-Bartz case.

Bartz said he could only think of one other instance of a dispute in his 15 years as a legislator.

Despite the fact the family has lived on farms for almost 30 years, neither Kuntz nor her husband was aware of the law, she said.

She said she believes most people pay for their own fencing. She believes Bartz should, too, or change the law.

THIS IS not, she said, a case of “good fences make good neighbors,” quoting the line from poet Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.”

“What I would say is: ‘Good neighbors make their own fences.’ ”

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