Property lawsuit targets county

  • Friday, August 22, 2014

Leslie Cantu/Journal Scene This property is at the center of a lawsuit disputing how the county handles heirs’ property that’s fallen behind in property taxes.

Change is coming to West Richardson Avenue, moving westward from the town center toward the railroad tracks, property by property.

Caught up in the change are 817 and 819 W. Richardson Ave., one an empty lot and the other occupied by a mobile home described in county records as “low” quality and “average” condition.

The property is heirs’ property, owned by some 75 descendants of Lucille Gregg.

One of those descendants is Wendy Reed.

Now, after losing her family property at the 2012 tax sale when she fell behind in property taxes, Reed is fighting to keep the land, filing a lawsuit against Dorchester County; Treasurer Mary Pearson; the delinquent tax collector; and Tom Limehouse, who bought the property at the tax sale.

Reed’s lawsuit alleges the county’s policies for redeeming property are biased against heirs’ property owners, many of whom are black.

The county’s policies are unlike any other county in the state, according to the lawsuit, and have “caused the loss of a significant amount of African American owned property in rural Dorchester County.”

Reed didn’t respond to a request for an interview for this story, and the county attorney said the suit was just assigned to an outside attorney.-

Limehouse, however, said the county did nothing wrong. “It appears that the county complied with the letter of the law,” he said.

State law says that when a property owner fails to pay property taxes and the county sells the land, the “defaulting taxpayer, any grantee from the owner, or any mortgage or judgment creditor” has 12 months to “redeem” the property – to pay the back taxes, penalties, fines and interest on the amount the winning bidder paid.

Reed alleges she tried four times to redeem the property, but the county refused to take her money because she wasn’t the owner of record.

Heirs’ property is owned in common by heirs whenever a property owner doesn’t leave a will and the estate isn’t probated. As the years go on, the number of heirs can multiply, making it ever harder to come to agreement on what should be done with the land.

Reed’s lawsuit says the county wanted her to prove she was an heir or get the estate probated, but she couldn’t get the estate probated because her grandmother died more than 30 years ago, and estates can be probated only up to 10 years after death.

The lawsuit says her father is listed on the “descent form” from 1984, but her father died in 2004.

That Reed’s name wasn’t listed anywhere didn’t bother the county when she was paying the taxes for eight years, the lawsuit says; the issue arose only when she tried to redeem the property.

In Charleston County, an heir can go to the delinquent tax office and redeem the property. The staff will simply ask if the person attempting to make the payment is one of the individuals listed in state law, but as a general rule the staff doesn’t ask for an ID, according to Dan Gregory, Charleston County’s delinquent tax collector.

The redemption doesn’t give that heir any more ownership stake in the property than before, he notes; paying the taxes doesn’t cut out the other heirs.

Reed contends that Dorchester treats heirs’ property owners differently than other owners.

Her lawsuit says the county doesn’t require non-heirs’ property owners to provide proof of ownership when they try to redeem property.

The policy has a disproportionate affect on black property owners, according to the lawsuit, and represents “intentional race discrimination.”

Limehouse said the proper comparison shouldn’t be to what Charleston County or any other county does, but to what the law says.

He believes the county acted according to the law, and even went above and beyond by referring Reed to the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation for help. It should be the duty of heirs to clean up ownership records and get ahead of any potential problems, he said.

Heirs’ property owners can’t have it both ways, he said. Because there’s no clear owner, whichever heir lives on the property can’t borrow money to build or renovate. The town would have a hard time enforcing codes enforcement violations against 75 co-owners, Limehouse said.

Yet, he said, heirs’ property owners want to be treated the same as other owners when it comes to redeeming property.

Limehouse foresees a revitalization effort making its way down West Richardson, and he says the lawsuit to keep the property as heirs’ property is preventing it from being on the tax rolls in a “meaningful manner.”

Reed is seeking monetary damages and the chance to redeem the property, as well as a ruling to stop Dorchester County from prohibiting heirs’ property owners from redeeming property and to either void or require compensation for any similar tax sales made in the last five years.

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