The idiom goes that fences make good neighbours, but fence building also makes enemies, even among people who live and work next to each other on farms.
That’s why decades ago the province created the Line Fences Act to provide a mechanism to solve fencing disputes and keep them out of the courts.
Back when every farm had livestock, the act was much more in use. My father was once a line-fence viewer in his township, although there hasn’t been that much work for years. I expect the idea of having unaffiliated (not elected or an enforcement official) community members come out to resolve business disputes would seem like an anachronism to urban bureaucrats.
The proposal, part of Bill 132 aiming to eliminate excessive regulation across 15 ministries, would repeal the whole act, taking the province out of such local disputes.
Municipalities will be free to manage line fence disputes as they wish, including making use of fence viewers if that works for them.
However, I expect most will treat fence disputes like any other person-to-person, or business-to-business dispute, with some sort of resolution system that can then fall to the courts to decide if necessary. There will be some regulations maintained that fell under the Line Fences Act, including those that govern responsibilities of railway corridor owners.
The Line Fences Act was actually a piece of legislation with some significant power. It allowed municipal officials and line fence viewers the ability to enter property in order to gather information. They could levy costs, to be split among the two parties. When a dispute document was filed by one of the land owners, the costs of the fence viewing process then had to be shared between both owners. Municipalities had legal means to collect the costs.
Sound familiar? I expect that the extra judicial powers afforded to the Ontario Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that were then cut down by the courts also had an effect on the province getting out of the fence dispute management business. The OSPCA no longer handles animal welfare enforcement for the province, which is in the process of creating a new animal welfare enforcement system.
One of the central tenets of the Nov. 20 act is equal payment for work on fences that divide and, supposedly, benefit both parties.
When livestock roamed almost all farms in the province and livestock numbers were much higher, than they are now, that made some sense. If you had a farm, you had some livestock.
That’s a rare occurrence now, and even rarer that livestock need boundary fences. Hogs and dairy cattle are mostly kept indoors and beef in feedlots don’t see pasture. Sheep farmers and the increasingly rare beef cow-calf farmer need fences, and their neighbours will also need them to avoid cattle tramping through row crop fields.
But the chance that the non-livestock neighbour really needs the fence for their own business or hobby use is highly unlikely. Therefore, fences should be a commercial cost for the farmer who needs them, like a grain bin, or the fences built on the rest of the property. I expect that’s what the courts will determine once a precedent is set, although I expect there will be exceptions. Municipalities may determine that the ancient dictum that a landowner will be responsible for half of a border fence will continue. The fine line of when a fence is of value to more than one neighbour is yet to be determined. What happens to the traditional cost-sharing for reconstruction or maintenance when there are no regulations?
In the Line Fences Act, the area of the fence that is the responsibility of each farmer is determined by each farmer facing the middle of the fence and looking right. Each farmer is responsible for building and maintaining half of the fence that can be seen to his or her right.
The reality is usually different. In my case, not long after I bought my farm, a neighbour needed to upgrade the fence used to keep in his beef cattle. He offered to build and maintain the length of it if I paid for half.
We just worked it out, although I expect without the power of the act to encourage cost sharing, there could be more disputes around payment.
I hope that’s what happens with most farm fence line disputes in the future. It makes sense that two businesses can figure out a boundary fencing issue, but with more non-resident owners of land and larger farms, it’s less likely the two parties have a relationship that could encourage them to solve the dispute as opposed to when they live near each other. We’ll see if the lack of the tried-and-true fence viewers system, not always loved by everyone, will still allow harmony throughout rural areas.