by Eric Christianson
Hopkins vs. Dickey
Iowa Court of Appeals, October 25, 2017
This dispute concerns the repair and maintenance of a 600 foot fence separating the properties of Matthew Hopkins and Robert Dickey. Iowa’s Fence Code 359.17(1) uses the “right hand rule” to determine who is responsible for the maintenance of a fence. Essentially, if the two property owners were to stand facing one another at the center of their adjoining property line, each is responsible for the fence to his/her right unless an alternate agreement is made in writing. In this case, Dickey is responsible for the west 300 feet and Hopkins is responsible for the east 300 feet.
In 2010 after several instances of cattle escaping, Dickey informed Hopkins that he needed to repair that portion of the fence. Hopkins declined to do so, stating “that’s not what the law requires” and he already had “too many projects.” Dickey filed a complaint with the local township trustees, who are responsible for managing fence disputes. The trustees ordered Hopkins to “erect and maintain the East 300 feet of the partition fence” and that such be a “lawful fence” having “five barb wires attached to posts not more than 10 feet apart.”
Hopkins appealed the trustees’ decision to district court. The district court upheld the trustees’ decision, finding the application of the right-hand rule was both “a customary practice” and “fair and equitable.” Hopkins then appealed to the Iowa Court of Appeals alleging:
- A verbal agreement with the previous landowner excused Hopkins from all responsibility to maintain the fence.
- The fact that the decision only applied to him violated case law that states that Iowa’s fence law exists “to equalize the partition fence burden.”
- The specifications that he was ordered to build the fence to exceeded those required by law.
The court of appeals affirmed the district court on all three points.
The alleged prior verbal agreement is hearsay and therefore inadmissible. Further, even if a prior agreement existed, it should be legally recorded according to Iowa Code 359A.13 to have any authority.
The fact that the court order only applies to Hopkins does not violate the principle of equalizing the burden as, at the time of trial, Dickey had recently rebuilt half of the partition fence. The court stated that it is undisputed that the portion of the fence built by Dickey was “in good repair” at the time of the fence viewing. Therefore it was not necessary to order Dickey to maintain the fence.
Finally, the appeals court found that the trustees have some leeway in deciding what constitutes a legal fence:
The term “legal fence” as defined in the statute is not a prescription, however, for how every partition fence must be constructed or what fence viewers must require, but sets forth a minimum standard for a “legal fence.” […] In this case, the fence viewers and the court determined Hopkins was responsible for a portion of existing fence that was in such disrepair it did not constitute a “legal fence.” The district court ordered Hopkins to construct a new fence in keeping with the style and character of the existing fence and in keeping with the fence constructed by Dickey and approved by the fence viewers.