Put up signs to clearly show where your property starts

Dealing with Trespassers

"Posted" signs are a common sight around farmsteads in New York. Farms and rural landowners use these signs to alert potential trespassers. This article explains New York's Posting Law, so you can have a clear understanding of its effect on your farmland.

As a landowner, you are permitted to post your property boundaries through New York's Environmental Conservation Law. Posting allows you to control access to your property, or property you lease, in your absence. It is a conspicuous notice to a person who is about to enter property. The signs notify that person that they are committing trespass if they enter without permission.

Trespassing is illegal even if your property is unposted. However, if the land is unimproved, vacant, or unfenced, you will find it more difficult to prove that a person trespassed. If you wish your unfenced cropland to have effective, yet economical, protection, a series of posted signs is a good first step. On land you lease for agriculture use, you need the permission of the landowner to post the property. If you are authorized to do so, you can place your name on the posted signs, so it is clear who intends to protect the land.

To post property, you can obtain pre-printed signs from hardware and farm stores. You will likely have better long term success with signs on durable material, rather than paper-thin plastic. In any case, the signs must be 11 inches by 11 inches, with prominent wording ("posted") covering at least a 9 inch by 9 inch area. The signs must be legible and include the name and address of the landowner or authorized person using the land. Homemade signs are acceptable if they follow these rules. Signs must be located no more than 660 feet apart along the boundary of the area your wish to protect. You have a duty to make the signs visible and conspicuous, without being an eyesore. Missing signs need to be replaced each year. If you secure a sign directly to a tree, aluminum nails will prevent tree health problems.

A basic posted sign bars all trespass activities. Of course, a posted sign may contain wording that permits or excludes certain activities, like hunting, swimming, or motorized vehicles.

A posted sign does not affect your liability, but it does strengthen your position against trespassers. New York's General Obligations Law protects landowners from liability for recreationist trespassers. However, landowners are not protected from liability in cases of willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against dangers. You may not intentionally erect a hazard or fail to provide warning of a known hazard. If you know of a hazard on the property, fix it or warn against it. This will ensure the highest protection from liability.

If you want to report and prosecute trespass, you need to collect as much information about the trespasser as possible, including:

  • Time and date of suspected violation
  • Identifying features of suspect or vehicle
  • Location of violation
  • Description of violation
  • Number of suspects
  • Type of weapon or activity in use

Any law enforcement agency in New York makes arrests for, and prosecutes trespass. In situations relating to hunting, fishing, trapping, or wildlife disturbance, contact the Environmental Conservation officer in your area.

Recreational Users Getting Hurt

Am I going to get into trouble if a trespasser hunts or drives an ATV on my land and gets hurt?

The real question to ask in a situation involving a trespasser getting hurt on your property is whether they can make a case that you were careless or downright mean-spirited about a hazard on your property. Your responsibility toward other people does not stop because you have your land posted. You always have an obligation to refrain from malicious or willfully harmful activity. Instances of gross negligence, such as an open well you know about, must be repaired or effectively forewarned, even for people who are not supposed to be on your land.

A trespasser - a person on your property without permission, right, or legal authority - has few legal protections on your property. They must leave your property when told to do so. You generally have no duty to maintain your property to be safe for trespassers. However, you cannot willfully or intentionally injure a trespasser, either passively (stringing hidden wires) or actively (running down a trespasser with machinery).

Whether the property is posted or not, the New York General Obligations Law (Section 9-103) protects landowners from liability under a particular condition: the person is not paying you to access the property. This includes trespassers and the people you give permission to hunt, bird watch, or hike on your property. Because of this protection, recreational liability lawsuits against rural landowners are uncommon. Recreational activities covered in the law include: hunting, fishing, picking (berries, plants, etc.) canoeing, boating, trapping, hiking, cross-country skiing, tobogganing, sledding, caving activities, horseback riding, bicycle riding, hang gliding, motorized vehicle operation for recreation (ATVs), snowmobiling, non-commercial wood cutting or gathering, and even dog training.

If you are interested in the requirements for posting property, contact Cornell Cooperative Extension of Livingston County.

Information for this article came from the NYS DEC and Cornell University's Department of Natural Resources Extension Program, and was compiled at CCE of Schuyler County.

Last updated July 26, 2019