Polk County residents and officials disagree on property lines
As residents accuse the county of moving property line markers while surveying land for its online GIS database, Polk County officials say residents who have misunderstood property descriptions for years are to blame.
LENGBY, Minn. – Some Polk County residents are finding out they may not live exactly where they thought they did.
In Lengby, Minnesota, landowners like Darrell Donnell were faced with a surprise after learning that their understanding of their property lines and the county's records of the same properties do not match. Sometimes the differences are significant enough for residents to lose a well, garage or even a house to a neighbor.
For Donnell, the difference between where he thought a property line was and where Polk County says the line is is around 80 feet.
As residents accuse the county of moving property line markers while surveying land for its online geographic information system (GIS) database, Polk County officials say residents who have misunderstood property descriptions for years are to blame.
Donnell learned of the discrepancy between the county and Lengby landowners in early 2021, when applying for a permit to build an addition to his house. Polk County officials told him his well and septic tank were actually located on his neighbor’s property.
“They told me I have to either buy my well and septic tank back from my neighbor or I have to move it on my property before I get a building permit,” he said.
According to Donnell’s records, his property was defined to the west by a treeline that served as a barrier between his neighbor’s property and his own. To the east, County Highway 4 was the cutoff of his property.
But according to the county, the highway goes through Donnell’s property and his land continues to the east of the road. The difference between Donnell’s understanding of his property and the county’s understanding of his property is between 50 and 80 feet.
“I can deal with 10 feet,” he said. “But my well and septic and my own backyard? I mean, that’s pretty hard to deal with.”
Donnell’s neighbor Al Olson agrees with Donnell that the treeline is the line between their properties, and that Donnell’s well and septic system are on Donnell’s land.
“His well and septic were documented, and they were fine 10 years ago, but now things have changed,” said Olson. “How does that just change out of the blue?”
The neighbors have agreed to continue to honor what they believed were the property lines. Donnell was awarded a building permit for his home addition, but says because he legally does not have a well and septic system on his property, he has not been able to get a housing loan from a bank.
Not all neighbors in the area are working together like Donnell and Olson. A nearby property owner, they say, is in court because her entire house, built in the early 1990s, is on a neighbor’s property according to the county.
According to Polk County officials, the difference in property lines is not caused by the county or hired surveyors moving markers or shifting property lines. Instead, the problem stems from a misunderstanding of where property lines have always been.
Richard Sanders, county engineer, says the issue is one he has run into many times in his two decades on the job.
“It’s not just an instance in Lengby — it happens everywhere,” he said. “It’s just a matter of people not understanding or not realizing exactly where section corners are, where property lines are and what your deed says you own.”
For Lengby, the problem is caused by County Highway 4, said Sanders, which landowners have long used as an indicator of where property lines start. However, most properties along the road actually use a section line, which is located just east of the highway. Despite the beliefs of nearby property owners, the highway is not on a section line, he said.
“It’s not — never has been, never will be,” he said. “When we originally built it in 1953, the easements show it wasn’t on a section line.”
Widseth, the company contracted by Polk County to survey the land in the county, has not changed property lines in its survey, said Sanders. The company has been contracted twice by the county to locate old section markers and put new ones in in the same place. This process allows for the county to have a precise view of property lines for GIS.
Sam Melbye, director of property records, says the county recommends landowners get their land surveyed when building, buying or selling land.
“They may find that our lines are off and they could submit that survey to us, and we would work on redrawing those, or they may find that our lines are pretty good,” he said.
From there, the county suggests landowners negotiate with each other or take disputes to court.
“That’s something where we don’t get involved,” said Melbye. “We’re not going to mediate that process of telling landowners what they have to do or what to do. We gave them suggestions, but we’re not going to force them into that process.”
Donnell thinks the county should foot the bill for landowners’ surveys and legal costs.
“The problem is you don’t find out about this until you get a building permit, sell your property or buy property,” said Donnell. “The county is trying to dump all these expenses on property owners.”
Minnesota State Rep. Steve Green, R-Fosston, who represents District 2B, plans to bring the issue to the Legislature in the upcoming session. He sides with landowners in believing that modern-day technology used while surveying has shifted property lines, and believes it is an issue that will soon be recognized across Minnesota.
“I assume as we get more and more into this, we’re going to be seeing a lot more of it,” he said.