An Eden, N.C. based man with ties to Patrick County alleges his land holdings shrank during a court case that went forward without his knowledge.
Eric DeHart said 4-acres of land that had been in his family for 121 years was removed from his possession after an argued “ambiguous deed” from 1906 granted possession to another person.
DeHart said he discovered the situation in 2021 when he called officials in Patrick County to find out how much his taxes were for the four acres of undeveloped land in the Patrick Springs area.
“I went to pay my taxes, and they had removed it in 2019. I had continued, and I have the evidence of paying the taxes on the property, in 2019 and 2020,” he said.
According to a case file at the Patrick County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office dated Feb. 7, 2019, Stephen Swartz sought to ‘quiet title’ the real property located in the Mayo River Magisterial District which contains 243 acres, more or less.
Quiet title is an action that can be brought when a landowner’s ownership of a property is challenged, according to online information.
In seeking the quiet title, court records indicate Swartz argued in the suit that defendants in the case were the unknown heirs, devisees, successors, and assigns of Gates DeHart.
Gates DeHart was Eric DeHart’s grandfather.
Swartz asserted in the case “that a four acres reservation created by deed dated June 8, 1906, was not sufficiently defined. The reservation cannot be identified with reasonable certainty and is therefore void by ambiguity. Further, the entire tract of property, including the land sought to be accepted, passes to the Grantee and his successors in interest and title.”
Rochelle Hopper, Eric DeHart’s girlfriend, said because the defendants were listed as unknown heirs, etc., no one was served or notified about the court case.
A legal ad appeared in The Enterprise to alert parties that may have an interest in the property, as required by law.
Eric Dehart said he is unable to launch an appeal because Virginia law requires all appeals for civil suit cases to be filed within 30 days after the date of judgement.
Swartz retained attorney Wren Williams, of the law firm Schneider & Williams, P.C., and argued in the court documents that the 175-acres of land went from Thomas S. Adams to A.J. Martin in 1874 by deed. Joseph Burgart was given the 122-acres of land and 50-acres of land by deed from Martin in 1903.
In 1906, S.G. Martin gained 122-acres and 50-acres of land from Burgart, who by the same deed created a reservation of “less than four acres which is to be surveyed and taken off south of graveyard and joining Hancock place.”
Williams said this reservation diminished the tract to 118-acres in creating the ambiguous four-acre reservation that is the subject for Swartz’s claim.
As the four-acre reservation could not be identified with reasonable certainty, Swartz requested the reservation be made void and S.G. Martin, as grantee, was vested with title to the entire tract described including the four-acres.
“As successor in interest and title to the same property conveyed to S.G. Martin in the 1906 deed,” Swartz “is the rightful fee simple owner of the four-acres sought to be reserved in the same deed,” Williams said in the quiet title request.
Quiet Title Cases
Patrick County Clerk of Court Sherri Hazlewood said deeds that are deemed to be ambiguous have been argued in court before.
“I wouldn’t say that we see a case on a routine basis, but certainly I’ve seen them before,” she said.
Hazlewood said ambiguous is not a proper name for a deed, but rather someone’s description of a deed. “It’s how they see it and their perception of that deed,” she said, adding that land disputes are one of the most passionately argued cases as people are protective over their boundaries.
“The ambiguity when this person interprets it this way and another person interprets it a totally different way and then it becomes muddy,” she said.
DeHart Land History & Argument
Hopper said the land involved in the quieted deed was bought by Joseph Burgart in 1901 and went from Burgart to S.G. Martin in 1906.
“Joseph Burgart bought up a bunch of tracts of land in this area. He was buying all the adjacent acres. In 1880, John Hancock bought a piece of land from John Penn that has been called the John Hancock Spring,” she said, adding Burgart bought the land from J.H. and Rada Pigg in 1901.
Hopper said this means there are two different tracts of land. Burgart’s land involved in the 1901 deed was inherited by his daughter Fay DeHart, who left it to her son Bobby Dehart. It was later inherited by Eric Dehart.
Hooper said the 1906 deed discussed the survey of the four acres that’s adjacent to the John Hancock Spring, a natural spring that runs into the Springs of Life Camp and Retreat.
“His deed talks about four acres adjoining the John Hancock place. So, he quieted four acres that were supposed to be surveyed off adjoining the John Hancock place,” she said.
However, Hooper said the four acres that were involved in the quiet title have the John Hancock place and spring within its boundaries.
After researching deeds associated with the property, including those done by surveyors, Hooper believes the recent deed is not where the four acres are.
“He did quiet that title that said four-acres that needed to be surveyed, but there’s another deed that actually has meets and bounds on it that gives a description of the boundaries that was listed and recorded in a 1982 tax map,” she said.
In 2021, she said the four acres were put into a Not Mapped section. “The other thing about it is that the state of Virginia sent Eric’s grandmother Fay Dehart” and other Bull Mountain Road residents in 1985 “a letter that says, ‘we are widening the road and we’re going to take up part of your property,’ and that’s recorded in the Register of Deeds also,” she said.
“So, I don’t know how it went from the boundaries being mapped in 1982 to not being mapped at some point. Then that’s the way it kind of disappeared,” she said.
Hooper said it also is proof that the state knew where the land and its boundaries were. She said DeHart also possesses a two-inch three-ring binder, created by his aunt and filled with the history of the land.
“Not only does it have the deeds that go back into the 1800s that she had copies of, but it also has anecdotes about people remembering where this property was and when they visited during family reunions,” she said.
After hearing the case, Patrick County Circuit Court Judge Marcus Brinks found that Swartz “is the fee simple owner of all right, title, and interest in and to the real property identified in the 1995 Survey titled ‘F. Stephen Swartz and Mary White Moore Swartz.’”
This includes the four unidentified acres reserved in the deed dated June 8, 1906, in a clerk’s deed book.
Brinks also found that the “defendants and all others do not have any right, title, estate, or interest in or lien on the four acres sought to be reserved in the 1906 deed; that reservation is hereby declared null and void due to its ambiguity.”
Before the hearing, DeHart said no one contacted him about purchasing the property, but he believes the entire case may have been triggered by him doing a 2015 survey after the land passed to him.
Hopper said the surveyor told DeHart that people were coming up in between his visits to try and find the boundaries
“They put up no trespassing signs, and so he never finished the survey and walked away because he didn’t want to get in trouble,” she said.
In Dehart’s 2015 survey, the surveyors went back and did title searches dating back to 1880.
“Now the first deed in Patrick Springs was recorded in 1776, so we could go back another 100 years if we had to, but it went from John Penn to John Hancock, then to the Piggs, and then to Joseph Burgart,” Eric Dehart’s great-grandfather, she said.
Hooper said the date books and title pages listed in DeHart’s survey report do not match those in Swartz’s history.
“None of these deeds are shown in his listing of deeds,” she said.
“Joseph Burgart owned thousands of acres at one point in the early 1900s, and then plotted them out and sold them out.” Swartz “bought some that was originally from Burgart, but his did not have the springs. This 1901 deed specifically states it’s the springs,” she said.
Hopper said Swartz surveyed the land in 1995, and all property lines were placed by grantors’ testimony or by adjoining landowners, except for the four acres the surveyor was unable to locate. Those were reserved by deed in 1906 due to “ambiguity in the language of the deed.”
Hopper said there are also differences between a 1982 tax map that DeHart’s aunt drew over and the lines given in Swartz’s survey. She believes when Swartz “surveyed it out, he surveyed in those four acres, but we didn’t know this.”
John Hancock Springs
Hopper said in 1949 Gates and Fay Dehart sold the water rights for $1,000 to James Graham for “the right to use water from the upper spring and the said spring is located in what is known as the four acres tract.”
By selling the water rights, Hopper said the DeHarts legally had to protect the springs so the person who bought the rights could enjoy the benefits of their purchase.
“Fay had always told Eric that four acres should not be developed because they were protecting the headwaters of that spring,” she said.
Since the recent ruling on the deed, Hopper said Swartz has legal authority to develop the land around the springs because all deeds prior to the 1906 deed were nullified.
“That’s one thing that’s really disturbing in the survey is this guy’s put a driveway” in close to the spring. “We don’t know how close the driveway runs to the headwaters of the spring,” she said.
Hopper added that she and DeHart have contacted the Springs of Life camp to let them know the headwaters are no longer legally protected.
“The reason it was so easy to take it was because they wanted to protect it, and it’s passed to one person to another who’s vowed to just let it be and grow,” she said.
Hopper said DeHart would like to pursue the matter in court.
“With them not notifying him at the time that they did the court case and then waiting two years to change the name onto the tax bill, we need to get a lawyer that will take on a trial case and will argue that we are within of the rights of appealing because they did not notify us that they actually went against the unknown heirs when it shouldn’t have been,” she said.
DeHart estimates it will take about $10,000 to retain an attorney. To donate, visit GoFundMe.com and search for “Return the Springs to the Dehart Family.”
For more information go to www.returnthespring.com.
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