THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, April 1, 2011 --
For at least two years, Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, has tried to make it more difficult for people to take possession of land or homes that they don’t own.
An unusual state law that has roots back to the 1800s allows someone to pay property taxes on homes or land they don’t own. If after seven years there is no protest from the owner, the squatter can get the title to the property by filing an “adverse possession” claim.
It was intended to encourage the development of blighted or abandoned property that is not generating tax income.
But in recent years this little-known state law has been abused due to the proliferation of vacant homes from the collapse of the Florida housing market.
Companies have sprung up that scout for vacant or abandoned homes and file adverse possession claims, renting them out and making a profit. The homeowner often isn’t aware, and in more than one instance, a Realtor or family member is shocked to discover the property takeover. They find that the home’s locks have been changed.
Law enforcement officials have been called in to sort out the confusion, and in several cases, have made arrests for fraud. Polk County, where Dockery lives, has been besieged with more than 800 of these claims, but it’s a statewide problem.
“It is happening all across the state and it is becoming more and more of an issue,” said Marsha Faux, president of the Florida Association of Property Appraisers and the Polk County Property Appraiser.
The proposal to make it more difficult to file adverse possession claims has struggled to gain approval from the Legislature. Last year it passed the Florida Senate but stalled in the House of Representatives.
This year, the bill’s prognosis looks promising. The measure (SB 1142, HB 927) is up in the Senate Budget Committee Thursday and has passed one House committee.
“We are just trying to update an archaic law,” Dockery said.
Dockery’s bill would make it more difficult for people to file these claims by notifying the homeowner when an adverse possession claim is made on their property and giving the property owner priority on tax payments.
Under current law, someone could pay a homeowner’s property taxes and the tax collector would have to accept that payment. Dockery’s proposal would place a priority on the homeowner’s tax payment, even if the bill was paid first by someone else. The non-homeowner would get a refund in that case.
Ellen Edwards, the deed department supervisor for the Polk County Property Appraiser, said “there has been an increase with the foreclosure crisis.” She said some of the claims are legitimate, from landowners in rural parts of the county laying claim to adjacent property that has been abandoned by the heirs of speculators who thought it could become valuable when Disney World was first being built.
“They thought they could develop it and be very profitable,” Edwards explained. “But a lot of this property is in swampy areas and is uninhabitable. Their heirs have left it unpaid for years. It’s not all bad, but some people have jumped on the bandwagon and try to do things the (law) was not intended for.”