• Key point. A church may become the legal owner of property that it occupies through "adverse possession" if it occupies the property for a sufficient length of time both openly and with an intent to claim ownership adverse to the true owner.
An Arkansas court ruled that a church that occupied a building for several years failed to establish ownership through adverse possession since it did not prove that it occupied the building with an intent to displace the true owner. A private individual purchased a 4.5 acre tract of land in 1949. A single-story church building was located on the property. In 1985, a congregation began using the church building without obtaining permission from the owner. Shortly after occupying the church building, the congregation began cleaning up the premises, which the pastor described as a "wilderness" and "dumping site." The land was overgrown with vines and littered with storm debris, and the church building was infested with snakes. They cut down trees, cleared out debris, and cleaned up the highway frontage so that the building became visible from the road. They repaired the building by installing central heat and air, and by replacing the roof, siding, windows, and floor. They added a 40-foot building and office. After two years, the property was in "immaculate" condition, and the congregation received compliments for their efforts from the local community. When asked whether he had treated the property as his own, the pastor asserted, "There's no way that I would have gone to this property and cleared it by hand … if I had assumed we didn't have business being there, the right to be there, or if the church didn't have the needed possession." It was not until 1992 that the landowner informed the congregation that he owned the land and was willing to negotiate a lease with the church. When the parties were unable to negotiate a lease, the landowner sent the pastor a letter demanding that he and the church congregation immediately vacate the property. The church did not vacate the premises. Several months later, the landowner asked a court to eject the congregation from his property. The church asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming that it owned the church building and surrounding grounds on the basis of "adverse possession." The court agreed with the church, and the landowner appealed.