ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
They say good fences make good neighbors. But when a landowner in Boulder, Colorado tried to put a fence up on his vacant lot recently, it caused a major dustup with a neighbor. A judge wound up giving ownership of part of that land to the neighbor, and there has been outrage as a result. The dispute involves a legal doctrine known as adverse possession.
Shelley Schlender from KGNU in Boulder reports.
SHELLEY SCHLENDER: The million-dollar mountain views in Boulder, Colorado can mean a million-dollar price tag for a vacant lot. In November, hundreds of protesters gathered on one of those lots as Boulder resident Don Wrege strummed his guitar.
Mr. DON WREGE (Boulder Resident): (Singing) This land was their land. Now, you think it's your land. Tell me how can you stand to look yourself in the mirror, man.
SCHLENDER: Don and Susie Kirlin own a house two blocks south of here, plus this vacant lot. They tell the crowd they're fighting to keep their land.
Mr. KIRLIN: (Singing) Give back the land to Don and Susie.
Mr. DON KIRLIN (Landowner): You know, you can't beat City Hall and all those kind of sayings. And there's that other saying that I guess they didn't know about, and that's power of the people. And that's what you are right now.
Ms. SUSIE KIRLIN (Landowner): We are definitely going to appeal, but we're still hoping that they will do the right thing.
SCHLENDER: Over 20 years ago, the Kirlins bought this vacant lot. For even longer, the homeowners to the north, attorney Edie Stevens and former judge Dick McLean, have used a path and gardened inside the vacant lot. They say that they assumed the landowners didn't care. But the landowners say they never knew their land was being used. When they finally realized it in 2006, Susie Kirlin says that friends warned her about a legal doctrine that gives long-term users ownership.
Ms. KIRLIN: I thought that was ridiculous and no one can take your land like that.
SCHLENDER: But just in case, she started to build a fence to block the path. Stevens and McLean then got a restraining order to block the fence. In a court battle that ended this October, a judge awarded Stevens and McLean one-third of the vacant lot, using the doctrine of adverse possession. This angers and concerns many Boulder residents.
Unidentified Man #1: What they did was legal theft.
Unidentified Woman: My opinion is if they want that land, they should buy it.
Unidentified Man #2: He's a thief.
SCHLENDER: A Boulder columnist, Bob Greenleaf, says people fear they might be next.
Mr. BOB GREENLEAF (Columnist): Many of them have told me that they were going to do things like posting no trespassing signs and calling, I guess, the sheriff and, or the police department more when they see people using their land.
SCHLENDER: The attorney for McLean and Stevens, Kim Hult, says that adverse possession is sort of like how if you feed and train a lost puppy, the owners can't show up years later and demand the dog.
Ms. KIM HULT (Colorado Attorney): What we have recognized in this country for nearly 500 years is that care, that maintenance, that use over a long period of time, 18 years in Colorado, means the people, the neighbors using the land, caring for the land, have acquired legal rights.
SCHLENDER: But while McLean and Stevens have won those legal rights in the court of law, Edie Stevens says the court of public opinion in Boulder has been hard on them.
Ms. EDIE STEVENS (Boulder Resident): We think that our friends still like us. And the people who have supported us in the past are willing to give us a benefit of the doubt. But we feel pretty beleaguered.
SCHLENDER: The original landowners, the Kirlins, say they will appeal the judge's decision. But many legal experts say the new lot owners have made a good case of adverse possession and it's likely the judge's decision will stand.
For NPR News, I'm Shelley Schlender in Boulder.