Vermont Supreme Court Clarifies Statute of Limitations for Preventing Adverse Possession and Calculation of Statutory Charitable Use Exemption Period

In Mahoney v. Tara, LLC, 2014 VT 90, the Mahoney family claimed title by adverse possession to a seventy-five-foot portion of beach frontage on Lake Champlain. The Mahoneys first began occupying the beach in 1949 and eventually purchased it in 1976. The current record owner of the property, which includes the disputed portion of beach, Tara LLC (“Tara”), acquired it in March 2006 from Vermont Catholic Charities (“VCC”). Earliest records show that from 1949 to February 1958, the beach was owned by Camp Iroquois, which operated a for-profit summer camp. Camp Iroquois then conveyed the property to VCC in February 1958, and VCC operated a charitable summer camp there for underprivileged children until August 2003. During VCC’s period of ownership, VCC recognized the Mahoneys’ claim to the beach frontage and marked the claimed boundary with signs. In 2007, Tara filed an application to subdivide the property and included the beach claimed by the Mahoneys as part of its land on the subdivision’s survey.

In response, in December 2007 the Mahoneys filed a quiet title action claiming that they adversely possessed the beach for the statutory fifteen-year prescriptive period. The Mahoneys alleged that they satisfied the prescriptive period for adverse possession by tacking the two periods of time when the beach was not dedicated to use as a charitable summer camp from 1949 until July 1959 (ten years) and then again from August 2003 through at least when the Mahoneys filed their quiet title action in December 2007 (over four years). The Mahoneys also claimed that their adverse possession period continued to accrue after they filed the quiet title action.

On appeal from a trial court decision against the Mahoneys, the Vermont Supreme Court held that the fifteen-year statute of limitations in 12 V.S.A. § 501 is inapplicable to an action filed by the putative adverse possessor. The Court said that once “open and hostile” occupancy consistent with adverse possession begins, it is the title owner’s burden to assert its right to the disputed property prior to the conclusion of the fifteen-year prescriptive period; otherwise, the adverse possessor acquires title as good as if it was acquired by grant.

On the other hand, the Court confirmed that once the title owner asserts a claim of ownership in response to an alleged adverse possessor’s quiet title action, the statute of limitations is tolled as of the date of the responsive pleading, ending the prescriptive period. In Mahoney, Tara asserted its ownership of the beach in a January 2008 Motion to Dismiss, and thus, the Mahoneys’ adverse possession claim failed because they could only claim adverse possession for at most fourteen years.

One other ruling of interest in Mahoney concerns the period of charitable use of land. Such periods are statutorily excluded from the calculation of the prescriptive period for adverse possession claims. 12 V.S.A. § 462. The Supreme Court dismissed the Mahoneys’ argument that the charitable use period should only include those periods of time when VCC actually operated its summer camp on the beach and held that the charitable use period is based on the entire period of VCC’s ownership , even including the relatively short periods of time when the beach was not actually put to use for the summer camp.

For additional information about this case, matters of adverse possession or real property issues in general, please contact Stitzel, Page & Fletcher, P.C., attorneys Robert E. Fletcher, Esq. or David W. Rugh, Esq.