Community gardens have become a common sight in Philadelphia and other cities. The existence of one such garden was recently threatened by one obscure legal rule and then saved – at least temporarily – through the application of another. As real estate disputes go, this one is not large, but it provides an interesting lesson in how to solve them.

Volunteer gardeners had been planting seeds and reaping harvests in the La Finquita neighborhood garden since 1988. The garden was founded by the Philadelphia Catholic Worker and is located on the vacant former site of the Pyramid Tire and Rubber Co. Hopes for permanent ownership continued to flounder on an impoverished bank account. This spring, the volunteer gardeners of La Finquita were set to begin the season’s planting when their plans were disrupted by a padlock on the gate of the fence surrounding the plot of land and by “no trespassing” signs hanging from the fence.

The Catholic Worker consulted two lawyers at the Public Interest Law Center, and an investigation revealed that a developer paid $60,000 in back taxes on the parcel and had received a deed to the property. The two lawyers then commenced a lawsuit contending that the rule of adverse possession gave the gardeners a superior title to the land. Under Pennsylvania law, a party who takes open and obvious possession of a tract of land and holds the land in a manner adverse to the right of the original owner for 21 years becomes the legal owner of the land. The law has a number of complexities, but a judge in the Court of Common Pleas was sufficiently impressed with the argument that she issued an injunction preventing any development of the parcel until the rights of the parties are straightened out. The bottom line for the summer of 2016 is that gardening will proceed as usual.

This case shows how tangled property disputes can become. A careful examination of title by a qualified attorney before any money is spent can save both time and money. For example, a visual inspection of the land at issue in this case could have revealed its use as a neighborhood garden. Anyone who is contemplating redeeming apparently vacant land from tax forfeiture may wish to consult an experienced real estate lawyer for advice on the mechanics of redemptions and potential pitfalls, such as the right of adverse possession.

Source: Al Día News, “Amid land battle, South Kensington gardeners can keep calm and farm on,” Max Marin, April 12, 2016