The law of adverse possession has been around for almost 4,000 years, but time is of the essence for Philadelphia community gardens. As far back as 1754 BC, civilizations recognized that if you abandoned your land and thereafter your neighbor gardened on it for a certain period, your neighbor acquired your land. One of the earliest legal codes, the Code of Hammurabi provided, “if a chieftain or a man leave his house, garden, and field and hires it out, and someone else takes possession of his house, garden, and field and uses it for three years: if the first owner returns and claims his house, garden, and field, it shall not be given to him, but he who has taken possession of it and used it shall continue to use it,” Law Code of Hammurabi, Number 30 (1754 BC). From Mesopotamia to Ancient Rome to English common law, societies have agreed that there should come a time when an owner may no longer sue to recover land used by another. Today Pennsylvania law provides that an individual or entity can adversely possess private property if it can demonstrate continuous, open, notorious, adverse and exclusive possession for more than 21 years, see Flannery v. Stump, 786 A.2d 255, 258 (Pa. 2001); and Conneaut Lake Park v. Klingensmith, 66 A.2d 828, 829 (Pa. 1949).
The concept of adverse possession is rooted in part in the notion that there are social and economic benefits to keeping land in productive use. Philadelphia’s experience with community gardens validates that guiding policy principle. With more than 40,000 vacant lots, for generations Philadelphians have been taking care of hundreds of these lots, cultivating gardens and community spaces after the legal owners long abandoned the city and stopped paying their taxes while the trash and rubble piled up. Using sweat equity, these neighbors steward the land, growing fruit and vegetables and creating quiet places of respite. And our city and its neighborhoods reap the benefits. Indeed, the benefits of community gardens are well documented, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. They include the obvious and the practical—access to fresh, nutritious food in neighborhoods that otherwise lack grocery stores and absorption of storm water—and perhaps the not so obvious—community gardens help stabilize neighborhoods, even reducing crime.
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