How do I determine who owns a piece of property?
Knowing who owns the land and what is the right-of-way (ROW) is an important issue for all highways. Here is a quick set of steps to find out the ownership and history of a highway. Please note that these are generic steps and many times there may be additional steps. Each property review is unique.
The critical items to find are the deeds that should be filed with the County Clerk. Some items may be found at the Town Clerk’s Office. For Towns and Counties a review of the Red Book is recommended to see which items have to be filed for highway acquisition (see Chapter 5).
Note that most Counties have digitized the deed and tax data so this may be able to be done online in many cases. Some Counties also allow you to search for tax ID numbers matching the deeds.
- Go to the County Tax Assessor’s office and find the tax maps for the area in question.
DO NOT USE the Tax Maps for defining ROW or ownership. Those maps are for tax purposes only and do not define property rights. Only deeds do that.
- For each property number, there should be a note that will give you the Deed Book (Liber) and Page Number. Write that down.
In the case of a highway, there may not be a deed to match the Tax ID number. In that case, the adjoining property deeds will need to be reviewed. This is very common for highways by use as the ownership of the land goes to the centerline of the highway and the tax map only shows that there is a public ROW. The widths shown on the tax map are NOT the ROW. That has to be determined on a case by case basis.
- Go to the County Clerk’s Office and find the current deed.
- In many cases, there will be a need to go back to an older deed to see if there is a subdivision or some other filing in the Town or County Clerk’s Office. The current deed should list the Liber and Page number of any older property. Find that deed.
- Repeat step 4 until you have found the critical information or documents.
The subdivision of land may be filed in a different location, but should be referenced by a deed as some point in the history of the parcel. The deeds should also describe any special easements so they need to be reviewed carefully.
- File a copy of the property review at the Highway Department.
Keeping a record with a permeant file will eliminate the need to repeat this work again if more questions arise. It may be advisable in some cases to have the review filed with the municipal clerk. Check with your municipal attorney for advice in every case.