It has been commonly understood that title by adverse possession cannot be acquired against the government. Thus, if a property owner has been openly and continuously using government land as its own property for over ten years, that property owner cannot acquire title through adverse possession. If the owner adversely possessed private property, on the other hand, the owner acquires legal title to that property. The doctrine of adverse possession permits a party to acquire legal title to another’s land by possessing the property for at least ten years in a manner that is (1) open and notorious, (2) actual and uninterrupted, (3) exclusive, and (4) hostile. If these elements exist for at least a ten-year period, title vests automatically in the adverse possessor.
On August 16, 2012, the Washington Supreme Court carved out an exception to this rule in the case of Gorman v. City of Woodinville. In Gorman, a property owner established adverse possession over a strip of land while it was still in private ownership. Later, the record owner of that strip conveyed the property to the City of Woodinville. The court found that by the time the record owner conveyed the land to the City, title had already passed to Gorman and the City had received no interest in the land. The court further explained that Gorman was not required to reduce his claim to writing in order to gain title to the land and priority over the City. Because the City had no interest in the land at the time it automatically transferred to Gorman, the usual rule that one cannot adversely possess government land did not apply. To many practitioners in this area, the court’s ruling is not surprising given the well-settled rule that title transfers once the elements of adverse possession are met.