Could a Howard County landowner demand that his neighbor pay half the cost of erecting a fence on their property line?
What's more, would that fence have to be "hog tight" -- low enough that a hog couldn't squeeze under?
And would such requirements apply to inhabitants of suburban developments such as Columbia?
The answer to those questions appears to be "yes," since a dispute between two Sykesville neighbors has brought to light an obscure, 78-year-old county law.
"In those days, they figured everyone had cattle and everyone had to share fence expenses," said County Council member Charles C. Feaga (R-District 5), who has proposed to repeal the 1912 law, which requires neighbors to share the cost of common fences.
Tom Lloyd, the attorney for the man invoking the law, meanwhile, says it has venerable roots in English common law.
Feaga, a farmer himself, calls the law an anachronism. Nowadays, farmers with livestock to protect generally bears the cost of fencing themselves, Feaga said.
"We were always told, you have to fence against your own cattle," he said.
The council is scheduled to consider the repeal proposal Monday, but Feaga said that he and co-sponsoring council member Paul R. Farragut (D-District 4) will probably ask that it be tabled to allow time to research legal questions the matter has raised.
The dispute that suddenly focused attention on the fence law arose between neighbors whose relationship has become less than neighborly. It is an old-fashioned, long-standing feud -- the kind that probably inspired Robert Frost's "good fences make good neighbors."
Between James Welling, who has lived on the Sykesville farm all his life, and Charles and Joy Gerber, who moved next door three decades ago, there have been disagreements over boundary lines and land purchases, Welling said.
The Gerbers have complained to county officials about dumping and conditions they said were health hazards on property owned by Welling.
The recent conflict began when the Gerbers received a letter from Welling's attorney, asking them to pay $1,800 toward the repair of the fence between them. "My clients were quite shocked -- they were all of a sudden being asked to pay for somebody else's fence," said Howard L. Alderman, the Gerbers' attorney.
"Maybe this made sense at the time English common law was developed, but that's not the situation now," Alderman said. "There are very few cattle running around here and even fewer hogs."
Welling said he recently decided to fix the fence because he intends to use the field as a pasture for livestock. The Gerbers do not keep livestock.
Welling said he invoked the law not because he wants the money but because the workers erecting the fence will have to stand on the Gerbers' land.
Charles Gerber "is going to stand there and see that you don't disturb a root or a blade of grass on his side," Welling predicted.
But he added that he would like Gerber to pay for the fence "so he'd take better care of it." Attorneys for the Columbia Association and Howard County are reviewing aspects of the law.
One question they are researching is whether it supercedes the covenants that govern fences and other architectural features of the planned community.
Landowners there, as well as county farmers, could find themselves forced to pay for expensive fences they do not want, Feaga said. "Not all farmers fence their fields," said Feaga, who has asked the Howard County Farm Breau to review the law.