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Posted over 1 year ago

The Interconnectedness of Land

All land is connected despite the fact that different people own different pieces of property or parcels of land. This means that at times, there will be situations where neighbors may have to share or where the rights to a piece of land may not be as clear as they would first seem.

Disclaimer: As we’re discussing legal issues in this article, it’s important to keep in mind that the content below is an oversimplification of legal concepts. Please consult your own legal counsel before taking any action, as details, exceptions, jurisdiction, and other pertinent issues have been omitted here for the sake of simplicity. I am not an attorney and not dispensing legal advice, but rather simply sharing information as it was made available to me.

Easements by Necessity

Probably the simplest example of this is an easement by necessity. Imagine that you just bought a piece of property online without physically seeing it beforehand. Once you arrive in person, you discover that it’s landlocked by neighboring properties and there is no access route. It’s like you bought the center of a circle, with the perimeter owned entirely by your neighbor.

The law requires that all property be accessible. In other words, if there is no previously designed route, such as a road, a driveway, or path allowing you to get to your property, then an easement may be granted.

Depending on the court making a ruling, sometimes actual necessity must be proven, while in other cases there may be some leeway when one access route is impractical. For example, if your property is only accessible by boat, should your neighbor be legally obligated to grant you an easement to allow you access to the street?

Mineral Interests

Mineral rights refer to ownership interests in what is below the earth, such as oil and gas. Traditionally, when you own land you own not only the surface, but the air above the surface and the ground below the surface.

When it comes to drilling for oil or natural gas, something known as The Capture Doctrine allows your neighbor to essentially take the oil and gas from below your property without having to physically enter your property.

It would be trespassing if they walked onto your land, set up a drill, and took the oil from below the ground. The same would be true if they placed the drill on their ground, but aimed the drill diagonally so that below the ground where you couldn’t see it, it actually went into the property you own.

Technology however makes it such that trespassing isn’t necessary. A drill could be installed on the neighboring property. Then by adjusting the pressure, the oil and gas can basically be drawn away from your property to the driller’s property. Think of it like putting a giant vacuum underground that suctions up your oil.

More recently, many states have since passed unitization statutes. These are basically legal requirements that landowners must share with each other. Think of a lake. A lake is made of water, which is a liquid. As a liquid, the water freely moves over the land below it. It doesn’t stop and form a wall where one property ends and the next begins.

Underground reservoirs act the same way. A reservoir of oil or gas can easily extend beyond one neighbor’s property. With this in mind, how can you determine how much of that reservoir belongs to one person and how much belongs to their neighbor?

Just like with a lake, if you were to start suctioning from your property, the oil or gas would migrate or move such that it would be nearly impossible to avoid tapping into at least a portion of what belongs to your neighbor.

This is where the unitization statutes come in. Each owner is entitled to a percentage of the reservoir and is also responsible for their share of the production costs. So instead of putting up three wells across three parcels of land owned by three different parties, the expense of a single well is split, as are the proceeds. This has the additional advantage from an engineering perspective of getting more resources out of the ground. If there are multiple oil rigs, it affects the pressure below ground making it more difficult to pull out the entire reservoir. By only using one rig, not only can you save money but you can extract greater quantities.

In some places, mineral owners (property owners) can be forced to pool their resources and participate in the extraction.

An Example of Technological Advancement

In Pennsylvania, it used to be the case that it wasn’t financially feasible in many cases to drill for gas and oil. But with improvements in technology, that has changed.

Unfortunately for many land owners in the Keystone State, their predecessors couldn’t foresee that future development and so they sold their mineral rights over a century ago. This means that today, it’s entirely possible that an oil company could own the rights below the surface of your PA property. Because they need a way to access what is legally their property, you as the surface owner must allow them on your property. Think back to the easement by necessity discussed earlier.

Unfortunately, even though the surface owner may be able to negotiate a more suitable location for a drill, they aren’t able to entirely keep those who own the below-the-surface mineral rights off their property. They also are not entitled to any of the proceeds once the oil and gas are extracted, because those mineral rights were sold separately from the surface, land, and air rights.

Who Owns the Shore?

The mean high-water mark is often used as a dividing line. The high-water mark is basically where the water goes during high tide, and mean refers to the average. Thus, the mean high-water mark can be thought of as the average location of high tide. Frequently, there is a visible line that makes it easy enough to estimate where the mean high-water mark is located.

Generally speaking, states own the shore, defined at the place between the mean high-water mark and the mean low-water mark (point of low tide).

Although beachfront property owners own the land above the mean high-water mark, the shore is generally made available to public use under the Public Trust Doctrine. Thus, so long as you’re below the mean high-water mark, you’re not trespassing on private property. There are a few states however where you would be deemed to be trespassing, and so it’s important to understand local regulations.