This tax sale case has an interesting twist

Standard

The alleged successful purchaser seeks to void the sale!

I’ve always believed our courts will happily void any tax sale on the flimsiest of technicalities, but apparently not when the purported tax sale buyer is the party seeking to get out of the purchase.

Alterna Tax Asset Group, LLC v. York County* is a Court of Appeals case from July dealing with a 2014 tax sale. Alterna claims it was the successful bidder at the sale and sought to void the sale and cancel its ownership relying on §12-61-20 of the South Carolina Code, which reads, in part:

“Any…person…(that) has purchased at or acquired through a tax sale and obtained title to any real or personal property, may bring an action in the court of common pleas of such county for the purpose of barring all other claims thereto.”

The complaint alleged that the title to the property was clouded because of York County’s failure to provide proper notice. The complaint set up four causes of action: (1) declaratory judgment; (2) injunctive relief, (3) quiet title, and (4) unjust enrichment.

The Master consulted the County’s records and took judicial notice that Alterna was neither the purchaser of the property at the tax sale, nor the owner currently listed on the deed. The Master ruled Alterna was not a real party in interest and lacked standing. The Master also ruled that the quoted code section does not create a valid cause of action to void a tax sale.

Alterna appealed claiming the Master erred in taking judicial notice of the public records. The Court of Appeals termed this use of judicial notice “problematic” but decided the appeal on what it called a more fundamental issue:  whether, as the alleged tax sale purchaser, Alterna may seek to rescind its successful purchase based on the facts in this case.

Since the purpose of the code section is to clear tax titles, the Court held that Alterna states to viable cause of action when it seeks to defeat rather than defend its title.

The Court accepted for the purposes of this appeal from a 12(b)(6) motion Alterna’s allegation that it purchased the property at the tax sale and concluded that no valid causes of action for declaratory judgment or injunctive relief existed.

The Court then stated that the remaining questions whether a winning bidder at a tax sale may use the quiet title doctrine or claim of unjust enrichment to defeat rather affirm the bidder’s title, are novel questions in South Carolina. The Court held that the complaint does not allege a proper cause of action for quiet title because there is no existing adverse claim. Neither the County nor anyone else was challenging Alterna’s tax title, so the claim is “imaginary or speculative”.

The unjust enrichment cause of action, which claimed the county was enriched by picketing the tax sale proceeds yet delivering a clouded title, collides, according to the Court, with South Carolina Code §12-51-160, which establishes as a matter of law the presumption that a tax deed is prima facie evidence of good title.

The Court further noted that Alterna’s alleged cloud on the title, that York County’s notification was defective, was a matter of public record visible to Alterna before the sale.

Finally, the Court held that Alterna’s claim was not a justiciable controversy. Alterna claimed its title was hopelessly clouded and would someday be snatched away by someone with a superior claim. The court resisted the request to “tame paper tigers or pass upon issues not subject to a genuine, concrete dispute.”

This is a very interesting case! I’ll keep you posed of future developments.

*South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5836, July 14, 2021

Have you heard of Pacaso Second Homes?

Standard

Dirt Lawyers: take a look at this company’s website: www.pacaso.com

(Photo by Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune)

I try to keep abreast of trends in the real estate market, but I missed this interesting story entirely. Luckily, my husband, Frank, a voracious purveyor of the news, pointed this article from NPR out to me. The story, dated August 24, is entitled “A Startup is Turning Houses into Corporations, And the Neighbors Are Fighting Back”. You can read the story in its entirety here.

It seems a “unicorn” (a startup corporation with a billion-dollar valuation) called Pacaso, is buying homes, slightly refurbishing them, furnishing them, and creating limited liability companies to own them. The ownership of each house is then divvied into eight fractional shares, and each share is marketed on the company’s website. Each share entitles an owner to 44 nights per year. Each visit is limited to no more than 14 days.

The corporation offers an app to handle booking, maintenance, and cleaning. The cost is 12% of the value of the property up front and monthly maintenance fees. After ownership for a year, each fractional owner is entitled to sell its interest at a gain or loss. Gifts of stays at the houses can also be made to friends or family members. The company advertises that it only buys luxury and super-luxury homes and that it is not competing with middle-class families for housing.

The news story and the company’s website indicate the corporation was founded in 2020 by two former Zillow executives. One of the founders who lives in Napa bought a second home in Lake Tahoe and immediately became inspired with making the dream of second home ownership available for more people.

This type of ownership is not new to real estate practitioners who practice on South Carolina’s coast. For sale signs for beachfront houses touting “Interval Ownership” are common. In fact, intervals in these homes seem to be perpetually for sale. 

My speculation about the frequency of these sales has always been that owning a home with multiple individuals and entities you don’t know can’t be much fun. It’s hard enough for two spouses to agree on when undertake major maintenance items. Imagine trying to decide when to spend the money on exterior painting with a large group.

 The crux of NPR’s article is the opposition being mounted by neighbors of some of the houses. It’s not surprising that owners in nice single-family neighborhoods would oppose the parade of vacationers interval ownership might create. One group of neighbors in Napa printed signs reading “No Pacaso” for homes and cars, wrote opinion pieces for local newspapers and were otherwise extremely vocal in their opposition.

Valid legal arguments might be made in these neighborhoods if restrictive covenants or zoning ordinances exclude timeshares or Airbnb-types of ownership, but Pacaso insists its model involves neither form. All real estate law is, of course, local, so various arguments will be mounted in different locations.

In response to the opposition in the Napa neighborhood, the company agreed to sell the home in question in the traditional manner. It also agreed to beef up noise provisions in its documents, to create a local liaison dedicated to assisting neighbors, to refrain from buying homes in the area valued less than $2 million and to donate funds to a local nonprofit dedicated to affordable housing.

I didn’t see any South Carolina homes in a quick review of the company’s website, but I did see homes located in Florida. I can only imagine that South Carolina’s beautiful coastline will be discovered soon. Real estate practitioners will likely be involved in both sides of this controversy.

South Carolina Supreme Court protects Captain Sam’s Spit again

Standard
Photo courtesy of the Post and Courier

This blog has discussed “Captain Sam’s Spit” in Kiawah Island three times before. Googling that picturesque name will reveal a treasure trove of news, opinion and case law involving the proposed development of a beautiful and extremely precarious tract of pristine beach property on South Carolina’s coast.

In the latest case*, South Carolina’s Supreme Court refers to the property as one of our state’s only three remaining pristine sandy beaches readily accessible to the general public. The other two are Hunting Island State Park and Huntington Beach State Park. I enjoy the blessing of walking the pristine beach of Huntington Beach State Park on a regular basis, so despite having a career on the periphery of real estate development, I am in favor of maintaining these three state treasures.

The South Carolina Bar’s Real Estate Intensive seminar in 2016 and 2018 included field trips to Captain Sam’s Spit, from a distance at least. Professor Josh Eagle of the University of South Carolina School of Law was an excellent tour guide, and how many opportunities do we, as dirt lawyers, have for field trips? The South Carolina Environmental Law Project, located in Pawleys Island, fights these cases. Amy Armstrong, an attorney with that entity, joined our group to explain the environmental and legal issues.

Here are greatly simplified facts. Captain Sam’s Spit encompasses approximately 170 acres of land above the mean high-water mark along the southwestern tip of Kiawah Island and is surrounded by water on three sides. The Spit is over a mile long and 1,600 feet at its widest point, but the focal point of the latest appeal is the land along the narrowest point (the “neck”), which is the isthmus of land connecting it to the remainder of Kiawah Island. The neck occurs at a deep bend in the Kiawah River where it changes direction before eventually emptying into the Atlantic Ocean via Captain Sam’s Inlet.

The neck has been migrating eastward because of the erosive forces of the Kiawah River. The “access corridor”—the buildable land between the critical area and the ocean-side setback line—has narrowed significantly in the past decade to less than thirty feet. Googling this issue will lead to active maps which show the change over time. The width of the neck is significant because the developer needs enough space to build a road. At the base of the neck is Beachwalker Park, operated by the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission. Our fieldtrips were conducted on that Park.

Previously, the administrative law court (ALC), over the initial objection of DHEC, has granted permits for the construction of an extremely large erosion control device in the critical area. In the prior cases (citations omitted), the Supreme Court found the ALC erred. The current appeal stems from the ALC’s third approval of another structure termed “gargantuan” by the Supreme Court—a 2,380-foot steel sheet pile wall designed to combat the erosive forces carving into the sandy river shoreline in order to allow the developer to construct the road to support the development of fifty houses. The Court again reversed and, in effect, shut down the proposed development, at least temporarily. The economic interests of an increased tax base and employment opportunities do not justify eliminating the public’s use of protected tidelands, according to the Court.

After a motion for a re-hearing, the result is the same. The Court reaffirmed its earlier decision without further arguments. We’ve pondered whether each case is the end of the litigation. At this point, we don’t know. Creative developers and lawyers may make further attempts to proceed. Stay tuned.

*South Carolina Coastal Conservative League v. South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28031 (June 2, 2021); Re-Filed September 1, 2021.

United States Supreme Court terminates eviction moratorium

Standard

Last Thursday, the United States Supreme Court blocked the CDC’s Covid-related eviction moratorium. The eight-page unsigned 6-3 opinion stated Congress was on notice that a further extension would require new legislation but failed to act in the weeks leading up to the moratorium’s expiration.

Congress has approved nearly $50 billion to assist renters. But estimates indicate many states have disbursed less than 5% if the available funds. More than 7 million renters are in default and subject to eviction. Bureaucratic delays at state and local levels have prevented payments that would assist landlords as well as tenants.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Congress adopted a limited, temporary moratorium on evictions. After the moratorium lapsed last July, the CDC issued a new eviction ban. The ban was extended twice more.

The three liberal justices dissented. The dissenting opinion, written by Justice Breyer said that the public interest is not supported by the court’s second-guessing of the CDC’s judgment in the fact of the spread of COVID-19.

Landlords, real estate companies and trade associations, led by the Alabama Association of Realtors, who challenged the moratorium in this case, argued that the moratorium was not authorized by the law the CDC relied on, the Public Health Service Act of 1944.

That law, the challengers said, authorized quarantines and inspections to stop the spread of disease but did not give the CDC the “the unqualified power to take any measure imaginable to stop the spread of communicable disease – whether eviction moratoria, worship limits, nationwide lockdowns, school closures or vaccine mandates.”

The CDC argued that the moratorium was authorized by the Public Health Service Act of 1944, and that evictions would accelerate the spread of the virus by forcing people to move into closer quarters in shared housing settings with friends or family or congregate in homeless shelters.

Some states and municipalities have issued their own moratoriums, and some judges have indicated they will slow-walk cases as the pandemic intensifies. We will have to watch and see how the termination of the moratorium interacts with the current backlog of cases in South Carolina. Real estate lawyers should be prepared to advise their landlord and tenant clients.