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The Sanpete Messenger

Moroni family perplexed by loss of 30 feet of property

Barbara Gordon, who owns a house at 255 S. 300 West in Moroni, stands beside a fence a neighbor put up after buying 42 feet of land south of her lot from Sanpete County for $100. The land had failed to sell at the delinquent tax sale. She says the distance from the corner of the fence in the foreground to where she is standing should be hers, based on the county plat map.

 

Moroni family perplexed by

loss of 30 feet of property

 

By Suzanne Dean

Publisher

1-30-2020

 

MORONI—Barbara Gordon and her family don’t understand how, over the past 30 years, more than percent of what they thought was their home lot at 255 S. 300 West in Moroni, a lot that started out being 9/10th of an acre, has been skimmed off their property.

In two different incidents, one in the early 1990s and one last summer, people bought a strip of property on the south side of the Gordon lot that had gone up for sale at the Sanpete County delinquent tax sale. Then the purchasers claimed the Gordon fence was on their land.

In the early 1990s, the fence on the south side of the Gordon lot got taken town and a new fence put up 6 feet north of what they believed was their property line at the time they bought their house.

Last year, the identical strip of land, at least according to county plat maps, went up for sale again. The purchaser informed Barbara Gordon, 77, that another 6 feet of what she thought was her land was really his land.

Gordon texted the new purchaser: “You will have to take me to court, so please don’t put that fence up until this is settled.”

“Within a week, he was here with his backhoe knocking down our fence,” Barbara’s son, Kevin Gordon, says.

When Barbara called to tell her son about it, he says, “I was so upset I couldn’t stay at work.”

Yet when the Messenger independently measured the property, we found the Gordons were shy much more than 12 feet. The county plat map shows the width of their lot as 182 feet. The Messenger measured the lot at almost 152 feet, a difference of 30 feet.

“That’s a lot of property to take,” Barbara says.

Reed Hatch, Sanpete County recorder, says the Gordon case is like scores, perhaps hundreds, of others around Sanpete County where fences, rock walls, rows of trees and other apparent boundaries between properties do not match legal descriptions.

Yet different licensed surveyors, or engineering firms with surveying licenses, who survey the same property can come up with different boundary lines depending on what marker they start from.

“The [unincorporated] county is off, but not a lot,” Hatch says. “Towns are generally off by a little more.”

The story of the Gordons’ boundary problems began several years before they bought their house.

In 1980s, someone named Lafayette O’Leary owned a strip of land 42 feet wide and 214.5 feet deep (the same depth as the Gordon lot, according to county plat maps). The odd-sized strip, too narrow for residential development, was between the property at 255 S. 300 West now owned by the Gordons and the next door neighbor to the south, at 301 S. 300 West.

The Messenger has not been able to determine how the oblong strip came to be or whether it was ever part of the adjacent properties.

In 1984, the strip went up for sale at the delinquent tax sale. Back then, people bid on delinquent parcels not solely based on dollars but based on how much (or more accurately, how little) land the bidder would accept in return for paying off delinquent taxes, penalties and interest. The idea was to satisfy the tax debt without taking all of the original owner’s land.

In the case of the O’Leary property, Douglas and Cherie Neeley of Manti agreed to pay $97.79, which covered what was owed to the county, in return for 40 feet of the 42-foot strip. The other 2 feet remained in O’Leary’s name.

Breaking up parcels discontinued

In recent years, the practice of breaking up a delinquent parcel and selling off part of the parcel at the tax sale has been discontinued. Now, the high bidder gets the whole property.

But back to the Neeley purchase in 1984. Why would a well established couple in Manti want an orphan strip of land in Moroni? The motive behind probably the majority of purchases at tax sales is speculation, Hatch says.

On Nov. 8, 1989, four years after the Neeley purchase at the tax sale, Phil and Barbara Gordon bought the property at 255 S. 300 West in Moroni from the estate of Ellis Christensen. His widow, Lucile R. Christensen, signed the deed as personal representative of the estate. The deed stated the lot dimensions as 182 feet wide and 214.5 feet deep, the same dimensions showing on the county plat map today.

The Gordons didn’t have the property surveyed before they bought it. They didn’t measure the lot. Few buyers do. They just assumed the existing fences were on the lot boundaries.

“I doubt Ellis and Lucile ever knew there was 40 feet” between them and their next-door neighbor “that was in a separate ownership,” Barbara says.

But Barbara says a year or two later, Douglas Neeley came to see her and her husband. According to Barbara, he told them, “I own 40 feet on the south end of your property.” She says, “I went to the county, and his name was on it.”

Barbara says Neeley offered to sell them the land, which he had purchased at the tax sale for under $100, for $1,000.

“My parents said, ‘Take it,’” Kevin Gordon says. “They couldn’t fight it. They didn’t know how to fight it. They were both working at the turkey plant” at the time.

Next, according to Barbara, Neeley approached the neighbor to the south, Ruben Leon, an immigrant from Mexico. She is sure Leon paid the $1,000.

“Ruben bought it for $1,000,” she says. “He brought in a bunch of the Hispanics. They tore down my fence and put up a new fence.”

There is no way to verify whether $1,000 really changed hands. Ruben Leon died in 2018. And no quit claim deed transferring land from the Neeleys to Leon was ever recorded. In fact, the 40-foot strip the Neeleys purchased in 1984 remained in their name until 2019.

Douglas Neeley disputes Gordon’s story. In a letter to the Messenger, he wrote, “I never offered the property to her. In fact, I don’t know the lady.”

Seller usually gives buyer a deed

Hatch, the county recorder, says the typical procedure when one person sells land to another without going through a realtor or title company is for the seller to give the buyer a quit claim deed (a deed attesting that the buyer now owns the property and there are no claims against it). Usually, he says, the buyer takes responsibility for recording the deed with the County Recorder’s Office.

But there is a good chance Leon, didn’t know about deeds, much-less about recording them. “I never saw it [the property] in Ruben’s name,” Barbara says.

“If there isn’t a deed, it basically didn’t happen,” Hatch says.

Hatch himself sold some land in Ephraim. He gave the buyer a quit claim deed. But the buyer never recorded it. A few years later the land showed up on the delinquent tax list. That didn’t look good for an elected county official. “I had a new quit-claim deed drawn up and I recorded it,” he says.

Barbara says she remembers Neeley saying he’d had a survey done of the site where his 40 feet were located. According to her son, Kevin, Neeley never claimed that all 40 feet were inside the Gordon fence. Neeley just claimed the Gordons were encroaching on his land by 6 feet.

Kevin Gordon says some rocks mark the spot where the family’s original fence, the fence that was there when they bought the property, was located. He says the fence Leon put up was 6 feet north of those rocks.

Sometime after the fence went in, Gordon went to the Moroni City Council and described what had happened to her. One of the city councilmen told her, “If you fight this, you’re going to open Pandora’s Box, because everybody goes by the fence lines. They don’t go by the surveys.”

What about the 2 feet that remained in the name of Lafayette O’Leary after Douglas and Cherie Neeley bought the 40 feet between the Gordon and Leon properties?

I appears O’Leary, or somebody, paid the taxes, which would have been under $25 per year, for at least eight years. But after about 1993, no taxes were paid. In 1998, the 2 feet next to the 40 feet went to the delinquent tax sale. Douglas and Cherie Neeley bought the piece for $121.92.

County records indicate the Neeleys paid taxes on the 40-foot piece for more than 30 years and on the 2-feet for more than 15 years. But about 2014, they quit paying the taxes.

In 2019, the two pieces owned by the Neeleys, with a width of 40 feet and 2 feet and a depth of 214.5 feet, went to the tax sale. The Gordon family did not know about the sale.

Gordons could have bought parcel themselves

In his letter to the Messenger, Neeley wrote, “Mine and Cherie’s names appeared in the paper for five years wherein you advertised the parcels in the county that were delinquent. We let the property go to tax sale, and the Gordons could have purchased the property at that tax sale. They did not.”

In fact, initially, the parcels didn’t sell at all. After the sale, the county re-advertised the pieces. Spencer Cook, a property owner in the next block, bought them for $100. A quit-claim deed conveying the property from the county to Cook was signed by Sanpete County Commission Chairman Scott Bartholomew on July 22, 2019.

Within a few weeks, Cook, texted Barbara to tell her Ludlow Engineering of Nephi had conducted a survey. He said the firm had used a survey marker that was 8 feet from her fence as its reference point.

He said the survey found the correct boundary between the properties was 6 feet north of where Ruben Leon and his Hispanic friends had put a fence in the 1990s. Cook put up a fence shaving another 6 feet off the side of what the Gordons believed was their property.

Remarkably, the activity on the south side of the Gordons’ property wasn’t the end of their problems. Cook owns a much larger piece of property that backs up against about one-quarter of the Gordons’ back yard.

Cook took the position that his back property boundary was also inside what historically had been the Gordon property. He drove a stake in the ground in the Gordons’ back yard showing where he believed the back property line should be.

The stake was at the side of an old shed in the southeast corner of the Gordon lot, indicating Cook believed the lot line ran through the shed. According to Kevin Gordon, if the Gordon property had been shaved according to the stake, the depth of the lot would have been reduced 6 feet.

A fairly new owner, Christopher Rothaug, had purchased property that ran along the other three-quarters of the Gordon back yard. Apparently he got wind of Cook’s contention that the Gordon’s back fence was 6 feet east of where he should be. The new neighbor removed chicken wire, some barbed wire, took out trees and started to take out fence posts.

Notably, if the boundary between the Gordons and the Cook and Rothaug properties had been moved west 6 feet, the Gordons’ connection to the Moroni secondary irrigation system would have been in Rothaug’s yard.

Kevin Gordon ran into Rothaug while checking on his family’s place. “I told him, ‘That’s our land. I put the fence back up, put up “No trespassing” signs and put up an electric wire along the fence,’” he says. There’s been no further activity along the Gordons’ back lot line.

The Messenger emailed this article to Cook. He replied simply that the article contained “inaccuracies and false assumptions.” However, the Messenger believes all sources for the story are credible. And we had multiple sources and public documents backing up most of the statements

Hatch, the county recorder, says the best way to resolve property line issues is with a private boundary agreement. The agreement needs to be filed with his office. And such an agreement serves as a quit claim deed for any land exchange between the parties. Such agreements are filed with the County Recorder’s Office all the time, he says.

A new state law passed last year now requires every private boundary agreement to be backed up by a survey by a licensed surveyor or firm. Both the boundary agreement and the survey must be filed with the recorder’s office.

“It’s often the uniformed, the trusting” who can get taken in boundary disputes, Hatch says. “In a lot of cases they pay cash” to buy land that is in dispute.

                Barbara Gordon

[pdf-embedder url=”https://sanpetemessenger.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/NEWS-Surveys-Boundary-diagram-GRAPHIC-BY-LLOYD-CALL.pdf” title=”NEWS – Surveys – Boundary diagram – GRAPHIC BY LLOYD CALL”]

Don’t hand over money without quit claim deed

Anytime anyone pays money for land, Hatch says, the buyer should not hand over the money until the seller gives him or her a quit claim deed showing the legal description, measurements of the land changing hands and the dollar amount paid.

“Anytime somebody starts moving your fence, go get an attorney and get it stopped,” Hatch advises. In the Gordon case, “I know money’s money, but her downfall was not getting an attorney” back in the 1990s when she learned about Neeley’s ownership of what she thought was her property.

What about squatter’s rights? The Gordons’ side and back fences had been in place for decades. The Gordons and the previous owners, Ellis and Lucile Christensen, had used the property Neeley and later Cook claimed didn’t belong to them going back to the 1940s if not earlier.

There is no statutory law in Utah on squatter’s rights, also referred to in courts as “boundary by acquiescence,” Hatch says. There is quite a bit of case law—decisions in which courts have essentially said that fences or other lot line markers that have been in place for years without anybody challenging them have become the legal boundaries.

Hatch described a case in Centerfield. An elderly lady had farmland around her home. She sold the farmland but kept her house and yard, which was bordered by a rock wall. At least that’s what she thought she was keeping.

The farm ground changed hands a couple of times. A new buyer did a survey, which found the land sold extended beyond the rock wall and came right up to the wall of her home. But a court ruled that it had been understood all along that the boundary of her residential property was the rock wall.

Phil Gordon, Barbara’s husband, died in 2014. After that, she wasn’t able to keep up her home. For several years, she has lived in and managed a Moroni senior housing complex.

Now, she says, she has health problems. Recently, she has been treated at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. She says she has to sell her property to pay her medical bills. She can’t qualify for Medicaid as long as she owns property.

“And guess what,” Kevin Gordon says. “When your lot is smaller, your price goes down. The land isn’t as valuable as it was before.”

He believes his family’s difficulties are just one example of many properties in Sanpete County where county plats, fence lines, legal descriptions and surveys do not match.

“It’s everywhere,” he says.

 

Barbara Gordon’s son, Kevin, and his wife, Misty, measure how much land has been cut off from what the Gordons regarded as their property after two different people bought land at county tax sales and then claimed the Gordons’ fence was on their property. .