Strips & Gores & Centerlines, Oh My!

Property ownership is as to the American dream as peanut butter is to jelly – a perfect combination.  And, just like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, it must be savored. I know, I know…a little tongue-in-cheek. But, in all seriousness, private property rights are inextricably intertwined in the American culture and must be preserved and protected. So, what happens when a conflict arises that threatens these rights? The law comes to the rescue. This post will take you through a few common law doctrines that serve to protect and preserve property rights, allowing property owners to savor that delicious peanut butter and jelly sandwich we call the American dream (well, you get the gist).

The “Strips and Gores” and “Centerline” doctrines of property law have been long hailed as complex concepts mastered only by those legal academicians who live in the law library and speak legalese as a native tongue. But, at the heart of these doctrines lies common law or, as many of us can relate, common sense.

The doctrine of “Strips and Gores,” in essence, supports the presumption that a person transferring a piece of property (also known as a “grantor”) has no intention of retaining ownership of a narrow strip of land attached to the piece of property transferred when that narrow strip of land is of no use to the grantor. In order words, where it appears that a grantor has conveyed all land owned by her adjoining a narrow strip of land that has ceased to be of any benefit or importance to her, the presumption is that the grantor intended to include that strip in the conveyance, unless it clearly appears in the deed as a reservation. So, think back to the time you purchased that acre tract of land, looked at the survey, and noticed a random adjacent strip of land that wasn’t included in (or specifically excluded from) your deed. That strip of land may actually be yours! A deed conveying land that does not identify but nevertheless creates a relatively narrow strip of land no longer useful to the grantor actually conveys title in the strip to the person receiving the property (also known as the “grantee”) unless the grantor expressly and affirmatively reserves title to the strip in the deed.   

Just remember, if you think that random strip may in fact be yours, don’t go getting your jelly just yet and making improvements to the property. That, too, can be fraught with perils.  Get help from a real estate attorney first.      

Another, more specific, longstanding rule often associated with the strip-and-gore doctrine is the “Centerline” doctrine which states that a conveyance of land bounded on a public highway carries with it the ownership to the center of the road as a part and parcel of the grant, unless there exists expressed language in the grant to the contrary. So, next time you purchase a property that’s adjacent to a public road, keep in mind that your actual property line may not stop at the curb, but instead may extend to the center of the road.      

The court has acknowledged that situations involving separate ownership of long narrow strips of land, distinct from the land adjoining on each side, are fraught with the potential for disputes and lawsuits, so the court recognized a presumption arising out of a public policy to alleviate debate over ownership of these relatively insignificant tracts of land. Why, thank you, Court, for that additional sliver of PB&J! Don’t mind if I do.

Oh, how sweet it is to enjoy the fruits of property ownership and the benefits of the laws that protect it.

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