Judge rules she owns 13 acres her late husband found was off the tax rolls and deeded to himself, exercising an “actual, open, notorious, hostile, continuous, and exclusive” use of the four lots
NEWPORT, R.I. — It’s a case of property owners beware.
A Little Compton woman whose husband made a hobby of finding and taking land he discovered was off the tax rolls has been declared the owner of 13 acres of wooded land in the picturesque coastal community through adverse possession.
Judge Brian Van Couyghen recently ruled that Karen F. Carroll and her late husband exercised “actual, open, notorious, hostile, continuous, and exclusive” use of four lots off Amy Hart Path for more than 10 years as required under state adverse possession law.
That means, under state Supreme Court precedent, the land is hers because Carroll’s taking of the land was aggressive and out in the open for all to see. Any reasonable property owner would have been on notice that Carroll was moving to take the land as her own.
The decision leaves Lisa and Michael Rodriques and Priscilla and Mark Estes out of luck, as owners of the property at issue. A lawyer in 2009 determined that the Esteses and Rodriqueses were the actual owners of the land, but didn’t realize it due to misreading the property description by the town and others.
“It was a mistake in the reading of the property description,” Christopher Anderson, Carroll’s lawyer, said. He faulted the Rodriqueses and Esteses, who own land to the south of the properties in question, for not moving to pay taxes on the land once the error was unearthed.
“They were happy to have my client keep paying property taxes,” Anderson said. He praised the Carrolls, too, for returning the land to the tax rolls.
“Actually ... it’s consistent with the purpose of adverse possession,” whose original purpose is to return land to productivity, he said.
“I’m disappointed in the decision,” Carolyn Estes, of Montana, said. “It is now in the hands of the lawyers.” An appeal is being considered.
If Van Couyghen’s ruling stands, it would clear the title to the property in question and free Carroll to sell the lots.
According to the ruling, Carroll’s late husband, Francis, made a hobby in the mid-1980s of searching land evidence records and the tax rolls for properties missing from the tax rolls and without an apparent owner. After identifying such a lot, Carroll would deed the property from himself to himself and his wife. The tax assessor would be notified of the new deed and assess taxes to the land. The Carrolls then began paying taxes on the property and treating it as their own. Little Compton land records show Karen Carroll as owning eight properties.
Francis Carroll’s interest in Amy Hart Path began when he received a lot in the area after his parents’ divorce. While researching his lot, he discovered that other nearby lots were missing from the tax rolls, meaning no taxes were being paid on them. He could not locate the owners of the land, which historically functioned as woodlots. Until the Carrolls filed a lawsuit in 2009, the owners remained unknown.
Carroll had his lawyer prepare a deed conveying the land from himself to himself and his wife. On Nov. 19, 1986, he recorded the deed in the Little Compton Land Evidence Records. The couple planned to subdivide the land for sale as house lots.
The following spring, the couple cleared around the boundary lines, cutting away brush and trimming trees. A surveyor placed six granite boundary markers around the land, as well as metal rods in the middle of Amy Hart Path, where the lots met. The Carrolls applied to the town to subdivide the land.
The subdivision won approval with conditions, including that they needed to widen Amy Hart Path. The Carrolls hired an engineer and gravel and stone were brought into improve the road’s structural integrity. Drainage pipes were installed. Francis Carroll passed away in 1989.
In 1995, Karen Carroll successfully sued to have Amy Hart Path declared a public road. That decision allowed Carroll to bring utilities to the properties and utility poles were installed.
Carroll posted no trespassing signs on the land and enlisted a Realtor, who secured purchase-and-sales agreements and security deposits on all four lots. One buyer, Christian LeBlanc, cleared an acre, installed a driveway and burned brush, before construction was halted to due to the lawsuit.
The ruling traces the history of adverse possession law in Rhode Island. State lawmakers first enacted an adverse possession law in 1896. The Supreme Court set forth the open, notorious, hostile standard. The state does not require that someone trying to acquire property through adverse possession do it in bad faith.
Van Couyghen held a two-day non-jury trial in May, ruling late last month that Carroll had indeed openly and notoriously occupied the lots. The Carrolls made their claims to the lots known, he said.
“Over the course of a nearly twenty-three year period, the Carrolls made efforts to acquire, subdivide, develop, and market for sale land that was undeveloped and wooded. The steps were numerous and blatant,” Van Couyghen wrote. The Carrolls initiated the claim in 1986 without interruption, the judge wrote.
″[Carroll’s] actions were sufficiently open and notorious to place a reasonable owner of the woodlots in Little Compton, Rhode Island, on notice of her adverse claim” — a claim that continued uninterrupted for the 10-year period required by law, the judge wrote.
Bruce Kogan, a Roger Williams University School of Law professor who specializes disputes, said he was not stunned by the ruling, but called the Carrolls’ approach “creative.” In Rhode Island, it doesn’t matter if the land was acquired in bad faith, he said. An objective standard that doesn’t look at intention is in play.
“It punishes neglect by looking at it as abandonment,” Kogan said.
“If there is to be a change from an objective standard, then that’s something for the legislature to decide,” he said.