Upper Peninsula farmer wins ownership dispute over 14 acres

HOUGHTON, Mich. (AP) -- An Upper Peninsula man used a bulldozer to dig a ditch through a farmer's crops as a way to keep Carl Laitila off his property. The undaunted farmer simply filled it in -- and kept on farming.

Now, Laitila has the blessing of the Michigan appeals court. In an unusual case, the court last week said he's entitled to 14 acres because Gene Arntsen waited too long to try to evict him.

Laitila, 75, always figured the land in Houghton County's Portage Township belonged to him because it had been farmed by his family for generations. The property has a dilapidated fence and occasional rock piles sat along the fence line.

Arnsten became the owner of 40 acres in 1982. About a decade later, he had the property surveyed for boundaries and discovered that someone was growing hay on about 14 acres. He sent a letter to Laitila, asking him to sign a lease and pay $10 a year.

Laitila never acted but continued to use the property. Arntsen took no action, either, until he tried to sell the 40 acres in 2004. Laitila warned the potential buyers that he controlled some of the land, and the deal unraveled.

Four years later, Arntsen, 73, had a ditch dug through the land, and a lawsuit followed. Laitila claimed he was entitled to the land because he had used it without interference for more than 15 years -- a key standard under Michigan law. The appeals court agreed.

"The evidence plainly showed that Laitila made actual, visible, and open use of the property up to the old fence line and that he did so exclusively," the court said.

Arntsen's lawyer, Mary Waddell, declined to comment this week. Laitila's attorney, Donna Jaaskelainen, said her client was born and raised at the family homestead.

"Back in the day, there was not exactly defined property lines," she said. "The Laitila family used it for hay throughout the years."

Published: Fri, Jul 6, 2012