Does River Dave have squatter’s rights to the land he lived on in Canterbury?

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    In this undated photo provided by Jodie Gedeon, David Lidstone, 81, smiles in the woods of Canterbury, N.H. Lidstone has lived in the woods along the Merrimack River for nearly three decades in a shack, growing his own food and cutting his firewood. He's now jailed after not complying with a court order to leave, and there's a growing petition to just let "River Dave" live out his days off the grid. (Jodie Gedeon via AP) Jodie Gedeon

Monitor staff
Published: 8/5/2021 3:29:15 PM

One phrase that comes up frequently when people talk about the situation involving “River Dave” in Canterbury is this: “squatter’s rights.”

Many of us have heard that after living somewhere continuously for 20 years you acquire some form of legal right to stay due to the mere passage of time. But is that true?

The answer: Yes, sort of, but probably not in the way you think. And definitely not with that phrase we’ve all heard before.

“There’s no such thing as ‘squatter’s rights,’ by the way. The legal term is ‘adverse possession,’ ” said attorney Brian Shaughnessy of Shaughnessy Raiche in Bedford, chairman of 603 Legal Aid, which provides free legal service to low-income people.

In New Hampshire, like most states, continuous occupation or use of land for 20 years can transfer ownership. But it’s not straightforward.

“Once you get to the requisite 20 years, and satisfy all the elements, the land doesn’t automatically become yours,” said Andrew Piela of Hamblett and Kerrigan in Nashua, who has handled many adverse possession cases. “All that allows you to do is to go to court and file an action to have the court make a ruling that you own this land. If successful … then you have to file the court order and other required documents at the registry of deeds before the land is legally yours.”

A key part of his description is “satisfy all the elements.”

As Piela explained it, the possession has to be continuous – “you can’t come and go” – and open – “you cannot hide what you’re doing” – and, most counter-intuitively, “you do it without the legal owner’s permission.”

Once a landowner has given permission to use or occupy land there’s an agreement similar to that of a landlord and tenant. The squatter can’t change the legal status even after two decades have passed any more than a tenant owns their building after two decades.

In other words, to get adverse possession you can't hide from the owner but you can't get their explicit OK, either.

One other point: Adverse possession does not require living on a property.

“You don’t have to build a house on the land. You can mow grass, cut trees – it all depends on the property,” said Piela.

In fact, it’s extremely rare for such cases to involve people’s homes. 

“I’ve been practicing law for 30 years in New Hampshire and haven’t heard it,” said Shaughnessey.

These cases usually involve disputes about boundaries between properties. Typically, everybody thinks a stone wall separates two properties until a detailed survey discovers that the boundary is actually somewhere else. In that case, the person who has been using the disputed land can ask the court to give legal ownership.

“When I was in law school 27 years ago I thought, with modern surveying equipment and technology, everybody knows what they own. That’s not the case at all,” said Piela. “I’ve seen many of these.”

A similar situation involves “prescriptive easement,” in which continuous use of property, typically as a road, gives the right to continue using it via an easement.

“Somebody using a Class 6 roadway to get to a cabin on a lake, for example. It’s the same type of issues,” said Shaughnessy. “You see more and more of that. Getting an easement by adverse possession is more common than a hermit in the woods.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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