The Curt Brown Chronicles: About Meander Lines and Boundaries

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June 1971
Hugh Binyon of Florida called my attention to an interesting court case, Bliss v. Kensey, (233 So. 2nd 191). When surveying sectionalized lands, the original government surveyors also meandered oceans, bays, lakes, rivers and sometimes marshes. Very rarely does the present limit of private ownership match the government meander line.

Along a shoreline most surveyors do not get up the original shore meander line; they merely extend the property lines to the limits of private ownership. Normally, no problems ensue. Most people think that is how their property lines should be.

In a few cases the area between the meander line and the shoreline has been prorated the same as for accretions. Most surveyors of experience know that the original meander line of the government was inaccurately determined, and it cannot be assumed that the area between the present shoreline and the original meander line was built up by accretions.

Two situations can happen: (1) The government surveyors did in fact correctly locate the limits of private ownership and all land added in front of a property since the original survey was the result of accretions. In this situation the rules of land apportionment for accretions are clearly applicable; (2) The government surveyors did not correctly locate the limits of private ownership and a strip of land was not included between the meander line and the limits of private ownership. In this second case, opinions vary as to how the land should be apportioned.

Suppose that this situation occurred: The government surveyors failed to include a strip of upland in the area of Lot 9 (see attached figure), that is, part of the upland was mapped as being in water. In Bliss v. Kinsey (Florida), this was the case. Should the judge declare that the lot lines should be prolonged to the mean high water mark and thus deprive Lot 9 of frontage on the Gulf of Mexico? Or, should the judge apportion the land similar to the rules for accretions? Bliss claimed his land was determined by the prolongation of lot lines (A to B) and the dispute was over area ABC.

The Bliss side cited Menasha WoodenWare Co. v. Lawson, 70 Wis. 600, wherein the line was extended to the true shoreline. Also cited was Boundary Control and Legal Principles by Curtis M. Brown for the proposition that "normally the ownership of land lying between the meander and high-water mark is determined by prolonging the property line to the high-water mark."

But where the equities are wrong by following a rule, the rule is tossed out. The other side cited Hanson v. Rice, 88 Minn. 273 (also cited in Brown’s book) wherein the opposite was held true. The judges felt that land purchasers should be able to rely at least generally upon meander lines, which indicate that certain lots consist of waterfront property. "This is not to say that meander lines be treated as boundaries, but that courts should attempt whenever possible to at least approximate the amount of shore line as indicated on a meander line when they are called upon to establish actual boundaries." In effect, Lot 9 was entitled to Gulf of Mexico frontage. I cannot quarrel with the judge’s opinion.

It seems strange that land, not formed by accretions, is apportioned by the rules of accretion. The surveyor’s life is anything, except dull. In three states, decisions have been made; in other states, the surveyors must await a trial.
Author Michael Pallamary has compiled the writings and lectures of the late Curtis M. Brown. These works are published in The Curt Brown Chronicles.

A 81Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE