ProPublica publishes interesting heirs’ property story

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Check out the July 15, 2019 story by Lizzie Presser

NC oceanfront property

Image courtesy of ProPublica.org

Several of our staff members stay well informed about current events, and Cris Hudson, our IT professional, is no exception. Cris pointed me to this story published by ProPublica on July 15 entitled “Their Family Bought Land One Generation After Slavery”. The subtitle is “The Reels Brothers Spent Eight Years in Jail for Refusing to Leave it.” Cris told me I should blog about this story, so here goes.

ProPublica calls itself a “nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power”. The story is about brothers, Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels, who lived in Carteret County, on the central coast of North Carolina, on land they considered to be owned by dozens of their family members. The property consists of 65 marshy acres. Melvin Reels ran a club on the property and lived in an apartment above the club. He also had established a career shrimping in the river that bordered the land. Licurtis had spent years building a house near the river’s edge, just steps from his mother’s house.

Mr. Davis’ and Mr. Reels’ great grandfather, Mitchell Reels, bought the land just one generation removed from slavery. The land was said to contain the only beach in the county that welcomed black families. Mitchell didn’t trust the courts and didn’t leave a will, so, when he died in 1970, the property became heirs’ property.

In 2011, the brothers appeared before a judge to argue that they owned the waterfront portion of their property, which had purportedly been sold, without their knowledge or consent, to a developer. They were not allowed to argue their case that day. Instead, the judge sent them to jail for civil contempt. They were never charged with a crime nor given a jury trial, but they spent the next eight years fighting their case from jail.

As any practitioner who has handled quiet title suits for heirs’ property can attest, the suits can be expensive and complex. Nonprofit organizations, like The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, in South Carolina, assist in litigating these matters.

The story quotes Josh Walden of the Center who said that organization has worked to clear more than 200 titles in South Carolina the past decade, protecting land valued at nearly $14 million. Mr. Walden told the reporter that the center has mapped out a hundred thousand acres of heirs’ property in South Carolina and is careful to protect the maps from potential developers.

Back to the North Carolina story, a great uncle of Mitchell and Licurtis apparently obtained the waterfront property through an adverse possession action and began sending trespass notices to the brothers in 1982. The brothers could not believe the adverse possession action could have been “legal” since they had lived on the land their entire lives. Soon afterward, the great uncle sold the waterfront portion of the land to developers.

The family members knew that if the waterfront was developed, the tax values of their adjacent properties would skyrocket, and they would have difficulty paying the taxes and maintaining their properties. Tax sales have historically been the cause of the loss of many heirs’ properties.

(I got confused in one part of the story when the author talked about “nearby” Hilton Head. We drove from Hilton Head to Outer Banks once, and I promise you, the two locations are not “nearby”. We could have driven to Disney World in the same time frame.)

Like tax sales, partition actions have been a tool used to separate heirs from their properties. A developer can buy the share of one heir and then force a partition of the entire property. While South Carolina has passed partition legislation to protect against this danger, North Carolina has held out against this reform, according to the story.

The brothers continued to rot in jail after the judge indicated there was no time limit on civil conspiracy, and that the brothers had to move their houses from the properties to be released. The brothers refused and were locked in a hopeless clash with the law, according to the story.

Eight years later, the brothers appeared before a judge who agreed to release them but warned them that if they returned to their homes, they would return to jail. They have still not been able to return to the waterfront property.

I invite you to read the entire story for a history of heirs’ property in the South. It is indeed a sad tale of greed and legal wrangling to remove properties from heirs. The Reels’ story is just one example.

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BBC reports on South Carolina “heirs’ property” saga

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A December 5 article in BBC News Magazine entitled “Gullah Geechee: Descendants of slaves fight for their land”, outlines the struggles of property owners in Jackson Village to save their homes.

Jackson Village is one of three black communities in Plantersville, an unincorporated area of Georgetown County located about six miles north of the Town of Georgetown on Highway 701. The area is described as consisting of neat brick bungalows, set back form the road and protected from Highway 701 by a dense forest.

The BBC article, written by Brian Wheeler, describes 20 homes in Jackson Village being put up for auction because of the failure to pay taxes on a new sewer system. Local authorities apparently required residents to pay for hooking up to the new system because septic tanks were contaminating drinking water and becoming a health hazard. The residents complain that they were forced to pay even if their septic tanks were working well. The cost for each resident is $250 per year for the next 20 years.

Plantersville sign

Photo courtesy of BBC.com

The land is heirs’ property, land that has been passed down through the generations, usually without the benefit of deeds or probated estates. Many heirs’ property owners can trace their roots back to West African slaves who gained property rights during Reconstruction. These owners often allowed their properties to pass through the generations without formalities because they were denied access to the legal system, or because they didn’t understand it or trust it or could not afford it.

Where generations of landowners own property as tenants in common, maintaining ownership can become a risky proposition. All of the heirs own the property, whether or not they ever set foot on it.  Living on the land and paying taxes on it is certainly not a prerequisite.

Many of these properties are in or near valuable coastal areas where developers are eager to gain access.  A developer can buy the interest of one tenant in common to gain the same rights as the tax-paying residents. But distant family members looking for money can also create havoc. Partition actions are instituted, legal fees are incurred, and the result may be that the property is sold quickly and for less than fair market value.

Photo courtesy of Chicago Tribune

Thankfully, our legislature has recognized and addressed this problem. On September 22, Governor Haley signed legislation that honored the memory of Senator Clementa C. Pinkney, a victim of the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church mass shooting in Charleston on June 17, 2015. The new law is now known as the Clementa C. Pinckney Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Act, and it will become effective January 1, 2017.

The new law requires independent appraisals and open-market sales to ensure heirs receive fair prices. The new act would not prevent sales for the failure to pay taxes as described in the BBC article, but it should make sales begun by developers and distant heirs more impartial and advantageous for all property owners.