Whose Land is it Anyway? Pennsylvania Supreme Court rules that Municipalities are Now Subject to Claims for Adverse Possession

Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP

Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP

In cities and towns across Pennsylvania, it is familiar story—a Good Samaritan homeowner, fed up with overgrown weeds and accumulation of old tires and televisions, decides to clean up a neighboring lot which belongs to an absentee owner. Once the lot is cleared, the Good Samaritan decides to park their car on the lot. Over the years, a parking pad or car port is added. Trees are planted. Neighbors haven’t seen the owner in decades. Then, like magic, twenty-one years later, the Good Samaritan realizes that they’ve now acquired a legal interest in the abandoned parcel. Colloquially, they’ve gained “squatters rights,” or more accurately, they’ve acquired a legal interest in the property through “adverse possession.” However, what happens when the property owner is the township, or in this case, the City of Philadelphia?

After nearly 350 years ¹, on September 26, 2019, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court finally put the legal debate on this issue to rest in the case of City of Philadelphia v. Galdo, holding, “generally, political subdivisions in this Commonwealth may be subject to claims of adverse possession.”

The legal doctrine of Adverse Possession in Pennsylvania dictates that “[a]n individual who claims title by adverse possession in Pennsylvania must prove [1] actual, [2] continuous, [3] exclusive, [4] visible, [5] notorious, [6] distinct, and [7] hostile possession of the land for a period of twenty-one years.” After the expiration of this twenty-one year period, a party claiming to have acquired legal title to a property through adverse possession must file a lawsuit demonstrating and documenting the elements outlined above. While proving all of these elements is often difficult, or impossible, without meticulous record keeping for multiple decades, Galdo represents the perfect illustration for how to obtain title via adverse possession—and it paid off for Mr. Galdo.

The property in dispute in Galdo was 1101-1119 N. Front Street. In 1974, the City authorized a declaration of taking of several properties, including the subject property, for the construction of Route I-95. The property was never used for this purpose and eventually was viewed by the City as merely “surplus property” that was not actively being used.  The City performed no “maintenance, grass-cutting, grading, or landscaping on the Parcel” during this time. The property was even purportedly “home to ‘prostitutes’ and ‘derelicts’” according to one neighboring property owner.  In early 1990, Frank Galdo, a near neighbor, decided to take matters into his own hands and clean up the property.  Over the ensuing twenty-nine years, Galdo: built a wooden pavilion; installed a brick barbeque; added picnic tables, a sand volleyball court, and horseshoe pit; planted a variety of trees; and even built a tree-house on the property. The property eventually became known as “The Notorious GALDO Parcel,”² a moniker that was even spray-painted in three foot tall letters on an old shipping container by Galdo ³. Galdo also erected hand-painted signs reading “PRIVATE PROPERTY” with accompanying skull and cross bones.

In 2014, the City finally had enough and filed a lawsuit to remove Galdo from his “Notorious Parcel.” The case ended up before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in September of this year where the Justices found overwhelmingly in favor of Galdo, rejecting the City’s contention that municipalities were immune to claims for adverse possession. The Supreme Court in a near unanimous Opinion held:

Encumbering municipalities with the limited responsibility to monitor their properties at some point during the twenty-one-year prescriptive period or face claims of adverse possession will promote the goals of municipal efficiency and the active and efficient use of the land by motivating municipalities to either use the retained property for the public benefit or sell it to the private individuals so that it may be taxed for the municipality’s and the public’s financial benefit.

The Justices did create a carve-out to this general rule for properties actively used for the “public benefit.” However, in Galdo, the City’s explanation that the property was being held for eventual sale was deemed to not suffice as such a use.

While the impact of Galdo may not be readily apparent, the likely effects are significant. Property owners who have been maintaining properties owned by municipalities for decades may now have confidence to formalize their ownership through the filing of an action to quiet title. Furthermore, they now have a perfect “road map” for how to demonstrate the elements of adverse possession by following the lead of the property owner, Mr. Galdo. However, more importantly, Galdo will serve as a wake-up call for municipalities owning property that they have neglected for decades. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s new “use it or lose it” approach, as detailed in Galdo, will likely lead to a significant increase in property sales to private individuals as well as motivating municipalities to take a good, hard look at what can be done to turn these blighted parcels into a benefit to the public at large.

¹ Over 2,000 years if you include the Roman legal doctrine of Usucapio.

² As of today’s date, the Facebook page named “The Notorious GALDO Parcel” has nearly 250 likes.

³ A photo of the shipping container can be viewed at https://www.inquirer.com/philly/news/fishtown-family-fights- philly-over-vacant-lot-20171016.html

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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