You Be the Judge: Land Grab

A 22 year plan for a dream home goes up in smoke thanks to a property dispute.

Colorado field
JFunk / Shutterstock

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In 1984, Don and Susie Kirlin bought two lots on the outskirts of Boulder, Colorado — a perfect place to build a dream home when they retired. In 2006, as the Kirlins began developing their land, their neighbors — Richard McLean, the former district judge and mayor of Boulder, and his lawyer wife, Edith Stevens — sued them claiming they had acquired ownership of the Kirlins’ land by “adverse possession.”

The case went to trial in 2007. Plaintiffs McLean and Stevens testified that they moved into the new development in 1982. Since then, they used the vacant lot to access their extensively landscaped backyard, maintain a garden, store wood, and entertain guests. As evidence they provided a photograph of a well-worn dirt footpath that extended onto the Kirlins’ property.

The Kirlins maintained that they had been responsible, vigilant owners of the land for 22 years. They provided evidence that they paid homeowners’ fees and property taxes and maintained the property.

They also visited the site regularly and never saw a path or their neighbors on the land, arguing their neighbors were nothing more than trespassers and never possessed the land.

The district court judge ruled in favor of McLean and Stevens. His decision rested largely upon his determination that the footpath was “very distinctive” and visible, and therefore proof that the plaintiffs’ use was actual and adverse to the Kirlins’ interest.

Using the path to measure new boundaries, he ordered the Kirlins to transfer 34 percent of the disputed property (estimated value $800,000) to McLean and Stevens.

The Kirlins appealed, claiming that they had new evidence — aerial and ground photos from 2006 showed there were no paths on the property at the time. The couple claimed McLean and Stevens had willfully fabricated evidence in order to advance their bad faith effort to take the Kirlins’ property.

How Would You Rule?

The parties eventually settled and reduced the land transfer to 15 percent of the Kirlins’ land.

After the decision, there was public outrage against McLean and Stevens. Many thought the couple had received special treatment because of their political connections. New legislation was passed in Colorado to revise the Adverse Possession Statute to protect landowners against bad faith claims for adverse possession.

Colorado Court of Appeals 2007

This reader favorite originally appeared in the March/April 2013 issue.

This article is featured in the May/June 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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  1. ‘You Be The Judge’ features are rarely ‘clean cut’. They’re often tricky, and require extra study and thought. If they were easy then the challenge element wouldn’t be there, obviously. I’ve really gone over this one Joan, and reluctantly agree to what the two parties settled on, since it seems to have finally been amicable enough.

    Something still seems very ‘off’ about the whole thing however, going back to the ’80s. Long ago as they might be now, legally things should have been very definitive regarding those two lots then, so there never would have been this ambiguous nightmare in the mid-2000’s at all.


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