Misdeeds

The article on a Roman boundary dispute (Professional Surveyor, November 2008) elicited responses from several surveyors concerned with dispute resolution. They were heartened by Cassiodorus' suggestion to rely on a (one!) surveyor and differed only in the role that he/she should play - bearing in mind that surveyors nowadays do not have judicial powers. Look for their proposals in letters to the editor.

One response came from Harold B. Hughes, an octogenarian living in Bridgeport, Alabama, with whom I have corresponded on other surveying matters. Still fresh in his mind is a dispute from the 1950s in which he unwittingly became involved. It is a unique case that bears telling for the lessons it contains.

Usually, the culprits in a boundary dispute are attorneys and surveyors - attorneys by muddling the intent of the conveyance or the description of the property, surveyors by mistakenly marking the property regardless of the clarity of the deed. Neither profession is to blame in this case. The "dispute" stems from another source, the parties conveying the land. Though well-intended, their conveyances constitute - so to speak - a series of "misdeeds," each succeeding one complicating the prior, without a final resolution.

The issue dates back to 1860, when Harold's great-grand-uncle, William James Price, deeded eight acres to a congregation to which he belonged, the church (lower case "c" as in Revelations) of Christ at Rocky Springs. The deed encompassed the existing meeting house and the cemetery behind it and provided sufficient ground for a school, which was later erected. It was based on a survey. Only later was it discovered that Price's wife had not signed it.

The deed was kept with other church records, dating back at least to 1807, well before Alabama become a state in 1819. All of them were hand written. To preserve them, the elders of the church entrusted them to a preacher/minister to have them typed. When he was relocated, the records seemed to have vanished. But they were returned, and some, the deed among them, were later recorded in the probate court of Jackson County.

When William James Price passed away in 1868, his nephew, William James Hughes (Harold's grandfather), inherited the estate. Since Price's will predated the deed and his wife had not signed it, the estate included the land that had been deeded to the church along with its parent tract. While searching through old records, Hughes found the deed. To honor his uncle's wishes, he and his wife deeded the land again to the church in 1870. Only this time several triangles of land were added, eliminating bends in the north, south, and east property lines.

That should have been the end of the matter. But by then, another congregation, the Hopewell Baptist Church, had erected a building near the northwest corner of this tract. At the time of its construction, Price's deed was known, but not the Hughes', and the building was unintentionally situated partly within the triangle that was added at the northwest corner in 1870. In 1927, Harold's father, Leon Herbert Hughes Sr., discovered that the deed of 1870 had never been recorded, and recorded both prior deeds and the survey plans. (The plan shows the location of Hopewell Church, but this is a later addition to the plan.)

In the meantime, the school that had been operated by the church of Christ was taken over by the state of Alabama. The church deeded 0.4 of an acre on which it was located to the school district, with the understanding that the land would revert to the church should the school be closed. Unfortunately, the agreement was not put in writing. The school was eventually torn down. Upon the death of the superintendent of schools who had made the agreement, Harold's uncle, Nicholas Berry Hughes, at the time an Elder of the church, tried to reclaim the land. But his plea was denied.

Instead, the land was put up for a sheriff's sale. Thinking that no one would bid on such a small piece of ground, he himself refrained from bidding but hoped to get the land by default. He was foiled. A lawyer at the county seat notified one of his clients of the sale and acquired it for him. This new owner later combined it with other land in his possession and sold it for residential purposes.

Before that happened, however, Harold became involved in the controversy. In 1954, he had gone to the cemetery to research his genealogy among the headstones and found that the cemetery had been sadly neglected. At the time he was the bookkeeper in his father's furniture retail business, and knowing that some of the customers were in arrears, asked his father to give them credit for helping him clean up the cemetery. The fence around the cemetery had deteriorated, and trees marking its boundary had died. Moreover, the Baptist church feared that graves of church of Christ members were located within the area reserved for it.

To reestablish the boundary, Harold commissioned a survey, paying for it out of his own pocket. Only then was the encroachment discovered. Several elders, including Harold's uncle, thereupon set up a meeting with the man who had bought the school property, who happened to be a deacon at the Baptist church. Harold attended the meeting at their request and proposed a swap of the 0.4 acre for the triangle at the northwest corner, thereby resolving both problems simultaneously. But the man only railed at them, and the encroachment persists to this day.

The lessons implicit in this tale need not be enumerated. The moral of the story is the proverbial one that no good deed goes unpunished. The church of Christ has told each new pastor of its neighbor church about the encroachment but has left well enough alone. It can rest content for being recognized by the DAR as the oldest congregation in the state of Alabama.

About the Author

  • Wilhelm A. Schmidt, PLS
    Wilhelm A. Schmidt, PLS
    Wilhelm Schmidt is the former owner of the surveying firm Bascom and Sieger in Allentown, Pennsylvania. You may contact him at willischmidt@verizon.net.

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