One of the more well settled areas of Pennsylvania law, the law of adverse possession, was subject to both judicial and legislative action in the Commonwealth this year. Adverse possession is a legal mechanism whereby one’s physical possession of the land of another is converted into actual legal title to the land. In general, adverse possessors desiring to acquire title to the land of another must satisfy the common law elements of the claim, i.e., the possession was (i) actual, meaning the claimant actually had physical possession of the land; (ii) continuous, meaning the possession was not interrupted others; (iii) open and notorious, meaning that the possession should have been obvious to the record owner; (iv) hostile, meaning that the possessor wasn’t given permission to remain on the land by the record owner; and (v) for the statutorily prescribed 21-year limitations period. Each recent change to the law marks a departure from distinct legal concept within the jurisprudence of adverse possession, and many landowners, including municipalities, may now have cause to reevaluate the status of their ownership of certain lands.
City of Philadelphia v. Galdo
In March, the Commonwealth Court decided City of Philadelphia v. Galdo, 181 A3d.1289 (Pa. Commw. 2018). At issue in Galdo was a parcel abutting Mr. Galdo’s home. The City of Philadelphia acquired the parcel by condemnation action in the 1970s as part of an agreement between the city and the Commonwealth concerning the initial construction of I-95. Crucially, the city granted the Commonwealth a temporary easement over the parcel during the construction, and nether the city nor the Commonwealth made any use of, nor did they take any steps to maintain, the parcel following the completion of the construction in the late 1970s. Mr. Galdo moved into his home in 1989 and began making various uses of the parcel and constructing various improvements- until the city posted a notice to vacate in early 2013. Mr. Galdo refused, and he counterclaimed the city’s ejectment action with a quiet title action, claiming ownership by adverse possession.
The Commonwealth court held that, while Commonwealth owned lands are immune from adverse possession claims, lands owned by a municipality are not immune if, during the statutory period, they were held solely for potential future sale without any public purpose or dedicated public use. The court reasoned that it would be detrimental to private property rights if it held that a municipality was permitted to use its condemnation power to take private property, fail to put it to public use, and hold it in a land bank for potential future sale.
The decision in Galdo should serve as a warning to municipalities in Pennsylvania to take inventory of all properties they own, identify those with long-expired uses, and attempt to repurpose them, or risk losing them to newly colorable claims for adverse possession.
House Bill No. 352
Following the decision in Galdo, the legislature moved to lower the bar for a different subset of adverse possession claims. This June, the Governor signed HB 352 into law, which reduces the period of time that claimants are obligated to wait before bringing an action to acquire title through adverse possession from 21 years to 10 years for certain residential properties. Specifically, single-family homes, including attached homes, sitting on a parcel of less than one-half an acre can take advantage of the reduced statutory period. Under HB 352, claimants may aggregate a claim for multiple parcels so long as the total area is less than one-half of an acre. HB 352 should cause owners of residential real estate in blighted areas to inspect and ensure that they are unoccupied, as the adverse possession period is now less than half the duration it once was for such properties and the risk of losing them to newly ripe claims is much higher.
The upshot of both Galdo and HB 352 is that there is now a much easier path to a courtroom for certain adverse possession clams, especially those arising in densely populated areas like Philadelphia where chains of title may be murky and public uses of municipal lands have long expired. In such cases, municipalities and owners of small residential properties should be on notice to investigate and take action against potential adverse claims, while adverse possessors now have cause to evaluate if recent changes in the law have served to ripen their previously barred claims.
If you have questions regarding the changes to the law of adverse possession stemming from either Galdo or House Bill 352, please contact Ryan Abrams with McCausland Keen + Buckman.