Putnam's Handy Law Book for the Layman

Prescriptive rights. - A person may gain rights in the land of another by acting in such a way as to indicate that he clearly makes a claim to them. Thus, if a man goes over the land of another in the same direction to his own land for a period of fifteen years or longer, the period differing in the several states, he acquires the right to continue, in other words he acquires a permanent right of way by such action.

As such a right is contrary to the interest of another, it cannot be gained against a person who is incapable of preventing the acquisition of such a right if he pleases. Such a right, therefore, cannot be gained against a minor, nor an insane person, nor any one who is incapable of defending his possessions.

Whether the right has been fully acquired is not always easily determined. Suppose one claims a right of way over another's land, and the right is disputed. How often has he traveled that way? [215]Has the other person known of his going and said nothing? Again, suppose a man sells another a piece of his farm away from a road, the law presumes that he intended to grant or permit the buyer to have ingress and egress to his land, otherwise he would not have purchased. This is called a way of necessity. Can the purchaser choose any outlet he pleases? The law says he must exercise reasonable discretion in making his selection.

When a way has been acquired by such use, the law is strict in confining the gainer in the use of it. Thus A buys a piece of land of another for the purpose of erecting a house thereon. The use of the way thereto must be confined to A and his family, friends and those who come to see him on business. Suppose A should decide to divide it into building lots, which would require a greatly increased use of the way. This could not be done without a new agreement with the seller. Again, a tenant cannot by any use of the land acquire a right therein that will continue beyond his lease. If he had a long lease, say thirty years, and could gain a prescriptive right by an adverse use of fifteen or twenty years, he would, if gaining any prescriptive rights, be obliged to give them up at the end of his tenancy. In claiming a right of way the use need not be exclusive. Other persons may also use the way with the same claim of right.

The owner of land has no natural right to light or air and cannot complain that either has been cut off by the erection of buildings on adjoining land. He may, however, acquire, by grant or some other way, a right to have light and air enter a particular window, or other place, without interruption by the owner of adjacent land. Nor can he acquire a right to light and air across another's [216]land for his own house by simply erecting it on the edge of his own land while the adjoining land is unoccupied. To erect windows on that side is not an adverse use of the land adjoining. But a person may gain a right to light and air by presumption, and if one has acquired the right to maintain a window in a specified place he loses his right by closing it up and opening another of a different size in another place. And the same thing happens to one who tears down his house and builds a new one with windows of the same size and in the same places as in the old one. A person cannot maintain an action against another for cutting off his view unless the right has been expressly acquired.

The general rule with respect to the use of water is, any person through whose land flows a stream may use it in a reasonable manner. What is such a use has occasioned many a legal dispute, especially among mill owners. Each one of them located on a stream may use the water, but can they hold it back for any length of time? As a general rule this can be done for a short time in order to get the use of the power, if they could not, the water could run to waste and no one would derive any benefit.

Again, can any diversion be made of it?

Any use, almost, is a diversion.

If one used water even to supply his cattle, it would be a diversion, yet such a use ordinarily is lawful. Suppose one had a very large herd, then the use might be excessive especially in view of the needs of other users on the stream. A still more important question has arisen of late concerning the fouling of water. Has a factory the right of putting its dyestuffs into the water, impairing its quality and rendering it unfit for use by all below? This cannot be legally done. Can a stream be used as a sewer? Naturally all the water in a valley [217]flows downward and at last reaches a stream running through it. As population increases the use of streams becomes greater, and questions concerning their use more difficult.

Suppose a land owner on the hillside wishes to use all the surplus water, can he gather it and thus prevent its flowing to the land below? He can. Can he build ditches or other obstructions whereby he can collect the water and pass it to the land below in other than the natural way? He cannot. On the other hand, the lower proprietor can, if he pleases, make an embankment that will prevent the water from coming upon his land. This, though, is not the law everywhere.

The owners of a well may prevent its overflow and thereby cut off water that formerly ran into a stream. But the owner of a spring that flows into the land of another cannot change its course, nor exhaust the water, nor pollute it to the injury of another. Nor can surface water be changed into a water course by impounding it. On the other hand this rule does not apply to water or springs beneath the surface. If in digging a well the source of supply to another is cut off, it is a loss for which there is no redress, unless the well has been dug maliciously. But where percolating water abounds and is obtained by artesian wells a land owner has no right to sink wells on his land and draw off the water supply of his neighbor. The right to cut ice is a natural one, and the owner of a lake or stream may cut a reasonable quantity, but not enough to diminish the water appreciably to the lower proprietor.

While a person has the natural right also to the lateral support of his land, yet he cannot use it to the injury of another. This is a legal maxim. If, [218]therefore, he should excavate to the edge of his land and his neighbor's building should in consequence fall down, would he be without redress? The rule is, the excavation must be made in a reasonable manner. This is a question of fact in every controversy of the kind. The owner of land adjoining a highway has no right to the lateral support of the soil of the street. Therefore, if the grade of a street were lowered by proper authority and one's house located by the side of it should fall, he would have no redress against the city or other public body.


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Law for the Laymen - Prescriptive Rights
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