Welcome to turf wars! No, it’s not the latest reality TV show—it’s just a way to describe two (or more) parties insisting that a particular piece of property is their own.
Turf wars are as old as the hills, and the existence of people who could lay claim to them. And they’re at the center of some surprisingly fascinating stories of wealth, greed, and pettiness. It seems that no property is too small to inspire a bitter rivalry—including one about the size of a floor lamp—that could go unresolved for decades.
As proof, check out some of the strangest turf tales below, and the lessons we can all learn from them to avoid the same ugly fate.
1. The smallest land grab ever
In Manhattan on the corner of Christopher Street and 7th Avenue lies a 500-square-inch piece of private property in the shape of a triangle.
The backstory: In 1910, the city demolished a building owned by David Hess to build a subway, but the surveyors missed this small patch in their measurements. Later on, once this error was discovered, the city asked the Hesses to donate it, but the family refused.
For good measure, the family laid a mosaic reading, “Property of the Hess Estate Which Has Never Been Dedicated for Public Purposes.”
Per the New York Times, it’s “one of the smallest pieces left in private ownership as a result of the cutting through a few years ago of the Seventh Avenue extension. It has been assessed on the tax books for $100.”
In 1938 the family sold this parcel to the cigar shop a few feet behind it for $1,000.
Lesson learned: Land survey mistakes—or not bothering with a survey at all—can cost you big-time!
“If there’s any question about who owns what, it’s better to be safe than sorry and get a good survey done,” says David Reiss, a law professor at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School.
On a more human level, we can learn this: “Spite is about as powerful as an immovable object,” says Reiss. “If you try to dislodge it, you will in all likelihood lose.”
2. Keep your water away from mine!
In Minnesota’s Otter Tail County, a seething feud between homeowners on two neighboring bodies of water—West McDonald Lake and Hoffman Lake—has boiled for decades. The source of the fight: Should Hoffman Lake be allowed to flow into West McDonald Lake, currently separated by 2 feet of sandy soil?
Team Hoffman Lake, whose residents are represented by Sheila Eklund, says it simply wants the excess water that’s eroding its shorelines to dissipate into lower-level West McDonald Lake. But the homeowners around Team West McDonald Lake are adamant that their crystal-clear waters not be polluted by Hoffman Lake, which is more of a “swamp” as their representative Todd Yackley described it in the Star Tribune.
In the 1970s, someone (no one seems to know who) blasted a channel through the lakes with dynamite, which was quickly plugged back up. The bitter battle is now being settled by the court, although if the water in Hoffman Lake keeps rising, it might just spill over into West McDonald Lake anyway, making all of this a moot point.
Lesson learned: Land wars aren’t just about land—water counts, too. Rumor has it some people were removing stones between the lakes, a big no-no.
“Homeowners shouldn’t take matters into their own hands, especially when bodies of water are part of the equation,” says Paul Sian, a real estate expert in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. “There are many environmental laws in place to control waterways.”
3. Won’t you not be my neighbor?
In summer 1991, private investor Jeffrey Horvitz—rumored to be worth billions—bought 1.2 acres of private beach on Massachusetts’ famed Gold Coast for around $1.8 million. He apparently placed an extremely high value on his privacy. So when land developer Evan Wile bought the adjoining plot a year later with the hopes of building his dream house there, Horvitz was so irked, he vowed to foil Wile’s attempts to build anything on his property at all.
Horvitz’s first filed a lawsuit questioning the validity of an easement that cut through his own property onto Wile’s land—the developer’s only access to his plot. That tied up Wile’s building plans for five years, but Wile eventually retained his easement, got his construction permit, then, perhaps as a form of revenge, lined up piles of scrap metal and port-a-potties along his property line, right near Horvitz’s swimming pool, infringing on this area’s view and fresh air.
Yet Horvitz continued fighting, and although Wile eventually gave up on building his dream house there, he didn’t throw in the towel. Since both men clearly had axes to grind, money to burn, and no intention of ever backing down, this battle has raged for decades to this very day, earning the moniker in the Boston Globe of “rich versus richer.”
An added irony? Both oceanfront properties have a view of Great Misery Island.
Lesson learned: “This is a classic case of people not backing down from a land fight due to access to plenty of money,” says Sian. “While the land is desirable, at what point does continuing to spend money to fight an ongoing legal battle make sense?”
Sometimes it’s better to cut one’s losses and build a dream home you can actually live in.
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