Can a shared well be unshared?
August 2, 2007 1:48 AM   Subscribe

Disentangling from the neighbors: If we pay (or pay part), can we "force" our neighbor to drill their own well? We have a shared well which is on our property.

(The following is provided for background, my question is in the paragraph above, if you're pressed for time. Yes, lawyers would be consulted--looking for anecdotes/real life experiences.)

To put it simply, we don't get along with our neighbors to be. Our relationship got off on a friendly foot, but went quickly sour when we revealed that we would be building our little farmhouse on the high point of our land and putting our (hopefully attractive, classic) barn between our house and theirs as a shield for both of us.

We own ten acres and so do they. The property was originally one parcel, and the house they live in was placed in the center of the 20 acres. The original owners fell on hard times, split the property to sell our ten acres for cash and eventually had to sell it all. The neighbors house, therefore, is just feet from the new property line, along with their horse barn, etc. Our property, in effect, is their "virtual front yard."

Our proposed building site is about 150' inside the shared property line, and our barn would be about 70' inside of it, all very happy according to the county. However, when we sent them a link to our proposed layout (back when we were friendly), they blew a gasket. They cannot comprehend why we don't want to build as far from them as possible (i.e., in the low, wet spot next to the county road). Their reaction is sorta understandable, though the way they communicated it (via insult and invective) was not so hot.

Things escalated quickly and the neighbor said some very hurtful things to/about my wife. After a chilly year or so, the acrimony has flared up again. More hurtful things were said (the neighbor could definitely learn something about diplomacy). There is almost zero chance of reconciliation, as my wife is not a forgiving person, and really, I can't blame her. (Ironically, both husbands are pretty easy going people who are slightly bewildered but obviously are supporting the various home teams. Anyway.)

We share a well, which is on our property. There is a legal agreement. This doesn't bother me too much, but in many ways it would be nice to simply be able to plant trees along the line and have them "disappear" from our lives...the shared well prevents that from being a clean break. Obviously they would need a well. Is there any precedent for a shared well agreement being extinguished if one of the parties agrees to pay for the other party's well to be dug? There should be any number of areas suitable for a well on their land, so that shouldn't be an issue.

Obviously, we would consult an attorney if we ever got to that stage, but I'm looking for anecdotes or real life experiences. We have not discussed this with them, I just want to make mental notes so that if that day approaches I can be prepared.
posted by maxwelton to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
"... There should be any number of areas suitable for a well on their land, so that shouldn't be an issue. ..."

Never assume the other guy isn't going to have a reality based problem, just because you don't see it being obvious ;-)

Water rights in Western states are sometimes a law unto themselves, although the situation in Northwest Washington state (if that is where you really are) may be better than it is in more arid areas to the east of you. There are also factors of drainage (particularly septic fields) and slope to be considered, not to mention underground geology. Water availability and quality can vary tremendously over only a few tens of feet on a particular piece of property, so you might want to talk to local well drillers (check your yellow pages) in the area regarding their experience. Many can provide you with estimates of costs for bringing in a water well, including local permits, and required chlorination/treatment and pumphouse equipment.

I've known of people drilling wells up slope of existing wells depleting the ground water flow of wells farther down a slope enough, that the downslope wells had to be deepened significantly to maintain sufficient flow as the overall water table dropped. Presumably, the overall water use shouldn't increase more than the shared well you have now already supplies, but, sometimes, it just does. Particularly if the party running on the new well has any reason to try to prove its flow unreliable or insufficient, to the detriment or additional expense of the owner of the older, proven well.
posted by paulsc at 2:14 AM on August 2, 2007

paulsc says: "Water rights in Western states are sometimes a law unto themselves"

Definitely. You need a lawyer who is well-versed in water rights (and who can parse through your original contract).

Anecdotally, though, my late father owned a property with a well. He had an long-standing agreement with the neighbors that they could use it to water their lawn. But, when new people moved in, he didn't let them use it (i.e. the agreement didn't carry over to new people)... So, are you sure your "legal agreement" is binding to your new neighbors?
posted by amyms at 2:36 AM on August 2, 2007

Also: if you've already got trouble negotiating water use from a shared well, what makes you think you'll have less trouble negotiating water use from the same aquifer via two separate wells?

Get thee to a mediator.
posted by flabdablet at 5:48 AM on August 2, 2007

General thoughts, not a substitute for a lawyer who knows the ins and outs of groundwater rules (which are often very different from surface-water rules) in your state, or for an engineer who knows about local water conditions, or for that mediator:

It's not easy to extinguish an easement (my best guess at what those fancy-pants legal documents set up) unilaterally. That's *why* one sets one up; so that the owner whose parcel the well or other thingo is on can't just say "go away" to the neighbor. Getting permission of all involved is usually the easiest way. In your case, since the hostility is mutual, I bet they'd be happy with a solution that allows a clean break. It's far from clear that drilling a second well would actually get you there, but hey, some other solution might.

The closest you could come, I'd guess, to "forcing" them to drill would be to drill your own second well on your own property, giving you and the neighbors each a well. Problem: they're still taking water from "your" well, and it sounds more like the property entanglement is the issue, not the shared water contention. An awful lot depends on what the legal document and the various professionals say. But my off-the-cuff, not-legal-advice sense is that you and the neighbors are stuck with each other.
posted by grimmelm at 6:06 AM on August 2, 2007

Shared well that they have to walk to? Or shared well that supplies a pipe?

The existence of marshy spots suggests that water is plentiful.

You describe your neighbors as vindictive and uncooperative. If you start out being accommodating, they may simply never agree too your offer, just to be contrary. You clearly have seen it from their point of view. Now you need to push them to see it from your point of view.

Land and water disputes just get ugly. Read the deed and property documents very carefully, with your lawyer, and and comply with only what is required. Plant trees, build your beautiful new home & barn, put up a fence if you like; just make sure they have a gate, or whatever the law requires.

Then, as things proceed, you can grudgingly agree to help them drill a well, or whatever. A good lawyer is about tactics as well as law.
posted by theora55 at 6:19 AM on August 2, 2007

I own 10 acres and a shared well. In my case the water sharing agreement is with two other properties identified by parcel number and is written into the deeds of all three properties. If that is the case for you, I think you're out of luck, unless you want to buy him out -- but regardless, IANAL. But do check your deed, it will probably tell you what you need to know about how easy this is going to solve.

On other fronts, by modern urban standards, 10 acres is a huge amount of land. By rural standards it's pretty tiny. My neighbors no longer draw from my well -- they are on small 1 acre plots that are served by the city. I have the 10 acres of mountain that was not worth subdividing because it was not buildable -- nor was it worth the city's time to run water up here, which suits me just fine, since the water I have is wonderful -- but I digress.

Chances are that both you and your neighbor intend to be there for a good long time, and that with a chunk of land that size, you're fairly far out from the urban center. It's not my place to say, but you might consider mending a few fences. You may need to depend on each other at some point. I wouldn't suggest moving the barn into the soggy areas of your property, but perhaps there are other accomodations? You don't need to reconcile to be nice people. Personally I wouldn't want a barn put up any closer to my house than necessary.
posted by MarcieAlana at 6:20 AM on August 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

IAAL, but IANYL, and I don't specialize in property law. Just chiming in to say grimmelm said everything I would.

Bottom line, ask them if they'd be interested in the deal. If they are, you write up a contract and you're all set. If they're not, then you can consult with a lawyer and see what your options are. (I'm with grimmelm, I don't think it will be something easy to force.)
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 9:32 AM on August 2, 2007

I see a few different ways of going about it:

1. Talk to the husband and lay out the reasons for the house/barns sites, cooler heads could possibly prevail. Be sure to express your concerns about the ongoing acrimony and how this puts you in an uncomfortable position with regards to the well sharing.

2. Plant trees and pretend as if they've disappeared. Only contact them in writing about the well maintenance issues. Do not communicate otherwise.

3. Speak to a lawyer and an engineer. See if a new well is possible/advisable. The lawyer should be able to tell you if it's your responsibility to share the costs.
posted by electroboy at 10:26 AM on August 2, 2007

Thanks, everyone. I suspect we will soldier on with the shared well, it's not like we need to discuss this more than once a year with them.

Two likely scenarios exist for legally changing this: they decide to sell, and we pay for a well to be drilled at that point (houses on their own well sell more readily than those with shared wells) or the well runs dry, not something I really want to contemplate.

I'd like to mend the bridge but frankly the my wife and the neighbor lady are vinegar and baking soda. I just don't see it happening.
posted by maxwelton at 1:41 PM on August 2, 2007

Vinegar and baking soda do eventually wear each other out and stop fizzing.

If I were in your shoes, I'd be doing my best not to get any of that fizz on me, while building a bridge with Mr. Baking Soda - surreptitiously if necessary.

You don't want this turning into one of those stupid Hatfields and McCoys things.
posted by flabdablet at 4:08 AM on August 3, 2007

How are we supposed to help if we do not know all the petty things that were said...

Mmm I don't live there but do you really want this to be a part of the history of the place.

I don't live there so I can safely say the legend will go like this "Two laidback hen pecked dudes let their bitchy wives squabbling get to the point where they fucked up the well and then nobody had any water and all the barrier trees died."

Good lord put a 20ft fence if you wish... with a gate. Or do you hang out all day at the well?

I'm no well expert but if you don't come out of this with two identically functioning wells. And if I was being a prick of a neighbor don't you know I would sabotage you. And heaven forbid that by chance something goes wrong on it's own.

I've got a better idea you and ol' matey next door should kick back in the swamp and enjoy the peace and quiet and leave the haggis (es? ii? whatever the plural for haggis is?) to it.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 1:48 PM on August 8, 2007

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