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Adverse Possession and Public Property

Posted by Joseph Rockne | Sep 25, 2020

People acquire property—and lose property—by adverse possession when certain facts have been present for more than ten years. The facts center on the possessor's use and occupation of the “true” owner's property. The use may have been by a prior possessor.

But what if the possessed property is owned by a governmental entity? The general rule is that public property cannot be acquired by adverse possession.

But what if a governmental entity acquires property that had previously been acquired by adverse possession? Can the governmental entity use the statutory defense to defeat someone's adverse possession claim to the land?

The Supreme Court of Washington answered no.

Where a party has perfected an adverse possession claim prior to the governmental entity's acquisition of the property, the cause of action as to ownership is not barred. Gorman v City of Woodinville, 175 Wn.2d 68, 283 P.3d (2012).

The rule follows from the reasoning that title acquired by adverse possession is inchoate title. It automatically vests in the possessor (and is passed to the possessor's successors!) upon the passage of a ten year period of open, notorious, exclusive, hostile, actual and uninterrupted use. The possessor is not obligated to perfect his interest: the quiet title action merely confirms that title to land has passed to the adverse possessor.

Before walking away from an adverse possession claim to public land, it is important to identify the date the possession started and the date the public acquired title. Is there a chance that the possession ripened into ownership before the transfer to the public entity?

About the Author

Joseph Rockne

Joseph Rockne is a litigation and trial lawyer who represents businesses, families and individuals in state court. Joe has handled bench and jury trials in several Washington counties and has argued cases before the Washington Court of Appeals. He also represents clients in private arbitration an...


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