Could ‘North Pond Hermit’ claim squatter’s rights? Not likely, lawyers say

Christopher Knight reportedly lived at this makeshift campsite in Rome, Maine, for 27 years.
Maine Department of Public Safety
Christopher Knight reportedly lived at this makeshift campsite in Rome, Maine, for 27 years.
Posted April 18, 2013, at 5:30 a.m.
Last modified April 18, 2013, at 11:56 a.m.

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Christopher Knight is shown in this 2012 surveillance photo from a private dwelling break-in.
Maine State Police
Christopher Knight is shown in this 2012 surveillance photo from a private dwelling break-in.

The man known as the “North Pond Hermit” could claim ownership of the section of property he apparently squatted on for 27 years but it is highly unlikely he would be awarded a deed to the land, Maine real estate lawyers agreed this week.

The report that the 47-year-old recluse spoke to just one other human being while he lived in the Rome woods most likely would doom any claim he might have to the property, Portland attorney Elliott Teel said Tuesday.

Christopher Knight has been held in Kennebec County Jail in Augusta since his arrest earlier this month after he was caught allegedly burglarizing the Pine Tree Camp in Rome. On Friday, he also was charged with burglary and theft for stealing food and the pair of jeans and the brown leather belt he was wearing when he was apprehended after reportedly living alone in the woods for nearly three decades.

Knight, who meets the legal definition of a squatter, allegedly admitted to committing more than 1,000 burglaries to area camps and homes while living in the Rome woods to steal items, such as food, sleeping bags and clothing, he needed in order to survive.

A squatter is “one who settles on another’s land” without legal title or authority, according to Black’s Law Dictionary.

What are commonly referred to as “squatter’s rights” are covered under Maine’s adverse possession statute, according to Maine Attorney General Janet Mills. She referred questions about the statute to her brother Paul Mills, a real estate lawyer in Farmington.

A 2008 decision concerning adverse property rights issued by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court outlined what must be proven before a judge may grant a squatter title to a piece of land.

“A party claiming title by adverse possession has the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that possession and use of the property was: actual; open; visible; notorious; hostile; under a claim of right; continuous; exclusive; and for a duration exceeding the 20-year limitations period,” Justice Donald Alexander wrote for the court in an appeal of a property dispute ruling that did not involve a squatter.

Knight appears to have met the actual, continuous, exclusive and 20-year requirements, according to Teel. To succeed in a possible claim, however, he would have to meet all of them.

None of the attorneys interviewed could recall a recent case that involved someone living on another person’s land.

“The situation on North Pond would not likely give rise to a legal entitlement on the part of Mr. Knight, the squatter involved,” Paul Mills said Tuesday in an email. “That’s because the concept requires that the possession by the squatter be open and notorious. Here, his possession appears, from the stories I’ve read, to have been somewhat concealed.”

Notorious means generally known and talked of and well or widely known, according to Black’s Law Dictionary. Hostile means a person is asserting a claim of ownership against all other owners.

While Knight might be “notorious” now, the statute would apply to when he lived on the property, lawyer Edmond J. Bearor of Bangor said Wednesday.

“It appears that he was hiding from everyone including the rightful owner,” he said. “That could be fateful [in a lawsuit].”

Knight would not be able to claim ownership of the entire 219-acre parcel, just the half-acre or so he occupied, according to Bearor.

The statute does not require that an individual have paid taxes on a piece of land to claim ownership of it, Teel said. The payment of taxes could be considered evidence that an individual believed he or she owned it.

Walter McKee, the Augusta attorney appointed to represent Knight in the criminal case, declined to comment on whether his client had filed or intended to file claim to the property owned by a Harpswell couple.

Few adverse possession lawsuits involve someone actually living on another person’s property, the Portland lawyer said.

“In my experience, it is usually one abutting property owner suing another,” Teel said. “These kinds of issues usually come to light when ownership change occurs, a survey is done and the property line is different than people thought it was.”

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