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Time to do something about the property

 line discrepancies countywide

 

7-30-2020

 

There are enough anecdotes floating around to establish a broader fact: Property lines are messed up throughout Sanpete County.

When property lines are messed up, land records do not reflect the understanding of owners on the ground. And when land records are messed up, property tax billings may not reflect what is sometimes called the “ground truth.”

To put a complicated problem in as simple terms as possible, there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of instances where fence lines, rock walls, hedges or other understood property boundaries that have been in place for as long as a century in Sanpete County do not match up with more recent professional surveys.

A few disputes over who owns strips of property along historic boundaries are being solved piecemeal by boundary agreements between next-door neighbors, agreements that are being recorded with the Sanpete County Recorder’s Office.

But on the whole, no one seems to have any idea how to clear up discrepancies on a large scale. In other words, for the most part nothing is being done.

The consequences include near pitched battles between neighbors, sheriff’s deputies being called out when one neighbor takes down the fence between two properties and causing costly litigation in court.

And there’s another widespread unfairness. More than a few property owners are paying taxes on property that county plat maps say they own, but property that in reality, they can’t use. Why? Because the land is on the other side of a fence running between them and their neighbors. In some cases, two owners have paid property taxes on the same strip of land for years.

Consider these representative samples of property boundary and property taxation problems:

  • Two neighboring property owners were unclear who owned a strip of land between their properties. The strip went to a tax sale and was purchased by one of the owners. Forty years later, the other owner found that after the tax sale, the county had been billing both him and the other owner for property taxes on the strip of land. The owner appeared before the county commission to ask for title to the land to be transferred to him and for taxes his neighbor had paid over the years to be refunded.
  • A family bought a home lot of about an acre in Moroni. Unbeknownst to them, an undevelopable strip of land on the south side of their property, but inside their fence, did not belong to them.

The owner of record let the property go to tax sale. It was sold and, the family claims, the buyer hired people to move their fence so the strip was part of the next-door property.

After a number of years, the party who bought the land at the tax sale let it to go tax sale again. No one bought it. The county re-advertised the land after the sale. Another owner on the block bought the strip the family had always regarded as their land for $100. The family told the Messenger they would have given their eye teeth to have had their original lot restored for $100. But the family, like most of us, didn’t follow the legal notices and didn’t know about the sale.

The Messenger checked the legal description of the family’s land in the county recorder’s office. It said the family’s lot was 182 feet wide. Then we got out our tape measure and went after the ground truth. The lot measured 152 feet, 30 feet less than the legal description.

  • A parcel owned by two Utah County residents was one of 14 parcels sold at the 2020 county tax sale. One of the owners told the county commission he never knew his taxes were delinquent. He believed a finance company was paying them, in the same way mortgage companies pay taxes for many home owners. He said the property was a retirement investment that he couldn’t afford to lose.

The Sanpete County auditor said she had done everything possible to obtain correct addresses for the owners but all the notices mailed had been returned by the post office. The Messenger found current addresses for both owners in 5 minutes by searching Utah voter registration records on the Internet.

The problems described here are technical. We at the Messenger don’t understand all the details, much less have the answers.

But that surveying is one of the functions of county government, and that Sanpete County now has a contracted county surveyor, it seems logical that the county could set up a systematic program to review land records against the ground truth.

Where legal descriptions and ground observations do not match, the county could and should contact owners and proactively encourage them to enter into boundary agreements to correct the descriptions.

In the process, the county should determine who is paying taxes and who is actually using parcels of land or portions of parcels. In encouraging rewrites of legal descriptions, the county should prioritize cases where people are paying taxes on land they are not using.

Finally, there is the matter of notification. When property goes up for tax sale, owners throughout the neighborhood should be notified, just as they are notified about pending zoning changes.

And in the Internet age, the claim that county staff just couldn’t find an owner doesn’t wash. Virtually everybody—and their relatives—are listed on voter rolls, public records and dozens of sites ranging from Intelius to Spokeo to Been Verified.

Rather than sigh and say, “This is an issue that goes back to my childhood,” let’s take action to fix this mess once and for all.