Squatters Occupy Houses Worth More Than $8 million
December 4, 2011 7:04 PM
FORT WORTH (AP) – One person moved into a dead neighbor’s house. Another came from Memphis, Tenn., to Fort Worth to lay claim to a $2.7 million mansion.
Tarrant County has become the go-to place for an assortment of squatters claiming other people’s houses as their own, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported in Sunday’s edition.
A Star-Telegram study of Tarrant County documents shows that squatters have claimed and looted other people’s houses in Fort Worth and numerous suburbs with a total value exceeding $8 million.
Tarrant County Precinct 7 Constable Clint Burgess, whose precinct includes the fast-growing suburb of Mansfield and other parts of southeastern Tarrant County, has asked the Texas attorney general’s office to step in and help bring order to the chaos.
“Everybody is just trying to learn what in the world is going on,” Burgess told the newspaper. “It’s the craziest thing how anyone could be so brazen as to just break into a home and start living in it.”
The chaos results from a loophole in a state law that allows squatters to claim property if no owner is on hand to challenge the claim. Squatters are claiming houses they insist are abandoned by filing affidavits of adverse possession with county clerks, paying a $16 filing fee, keeping current with property taxes and pledging to live in the house for at least three years.
Properties in which owners have died or are absent because of job duties or illness are at risk. Some property owners have returned home to find their houses trashed or looted.
“This is the worst thing that I’ve been through,” said Arlington accountant Joe Bruner, whose neighbor’s home was occupied by two squatters last month. “It’s not healthy for anybody — for the neighborhood, for the county. It’s just not healthy for humanity. You don’t come in and steal somebody’s home.”
The squatters loaded a commercial garbage bin with the owner’s belongings while the homeowner was in Houston having chemotherapy, Bruner said.
Homes vacant after mortgage foreclosures are also ripe for the picking because ownership is hard to discern. The Star-Telegram reported that some financial institutions it contacted were unaware that squatters had claimed and occupied homes for which the institutions were servicing loans.
One such place was the $2.7 million mansion, which had been vacant for about two years before it was claimed by a 28-year-old former Memphis, Tenn., insurance agent.
The mansion had been foreclosed on in January, and a real estate firm had been trying to sell it when the squatter arrived in August and tried to claim the place. According to police reports, she called police and told them they had no authority to evict her because she had adverse possession.
Chase Bank had serviced the foreclosure, and Chase spokesman Thomas Kelly said it has no power to evict squatters. Bank of America, which owns the house, does have that power but it has had to stop marketing the house until it can get the squatter’s affidavit dismissed.
A neighbor, retired physician Ben Termini, said the county clerk’s office has been derelict in screening these affidavits. “They should prove the property is meeting the standard for adverse possession,” he told the Star-Telegram.
Tarrant County Clerk Mary Louise Garcia said that with thousands of documents being filed with her office, it’s not feasible to spot the fraudulent ones. “But as soon as these bad actors came to our attention, we did do our due diligence,” she said.
However, that wasn’t until Nov. 7, when District Attorney Joe Shannon advised Garcia that the affidavits were likely illegal. Garcia said her office is now sending notices to property owners about adverse possession affidavits filed on their properties.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
Texas Towns Find Fast Solutions To Water Problems?
December 3, 2011 4:09 PM
GROESBECK (AP) – In a tranquil state park in Central Texas, workers are busily piecing together massive yellow pipes that spell salvation for this city. The pipes run along a park road, slither between trees, cross a street to avoid an ancient cemetery, hug a state-owned easement and then land at a treatment plant.
Without it, what everyone fears most would come true: The water will stop running.
This $250,000 pipeline project will bring water from a rock quarry seven miles away to Groesbeck by Dec. 6 — the date that state officials monitoring the drought said the town would run out of water, finally sucked dry by Texas’ historic drought. But it is only a six-month supply. That’s enough time, Mayor Jackie Livingston hopes, to find a permanent solution.
“We will do anything, anything short of hauling water,” Livingston said.
Imperiled towns around Texas are finding short-term solutions to water supply problems brought on by the drought, some just in time to avert a crisis. But finding a permanent solution is tricky, and in many cases, expensive. That makes the plight of finding water doubly difficult: Even if they could find a fix, they also have to find the cash to pay for it.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality says there are 11 towns with enough water to last six month or less. It is working to find quick fixes that cost tens of thousands — sometimes millions — of dollars for a few months of water. They hope that is long enough to find and complete longer-term projects, many of which these cash-strapped communities had delayed for years.
For the West Texas town of Robert Lee, there is a $1.55 million price tag to tap into the nearby town’s water supply with a pipeline. A neighborhood near the Louisiana border will pay $50,000 to drop a pump off a bridge into a deeper part of a lake.
An Austin-area community has paid about $10,000 to build a temporary barge to float a pipe over a water-filled hole that saved the town from hauling water, at least for now, said Pat Mulligan, president and manager of the Windermere Oaks Water Supply Company. But if the lake that supplies the area drops another six feet, they will have to haul in water by truck. Then, water bills will increase about 300 percent and residents in the 230-home subdivision could pay $300 a month for water — up from about $120.
Mulligan hopes the hole will supply water for a year.
“We’re at the mercy of the gods,” he said.
The state is treating the drought much as it would a hurricane, said Linda Brookins, director of the TCEQ water supply division. Officials contact towns every week. They hold urgent meetings. Experts walk rivers and reservoirs. Others help with grant and loan applications. Many are surprised to learn many state grants are only available for permanent solutions, and so are forced to take separate loans to fund temporary projects.
“The last thing we want is to see people run out of water,” Brookins said.
In Groesbeck, water troubles began this summer. Fort Parker Lake, once a grand reservoir, has been relegated to a series of mud banks and puddles.
It happened quickly: During a 90-day stretch of little rain and triple-degree heat, the town used 54 million gallons of water. Some 271 million gallons — an 18-month supply — evaporated.
“Sucked it out of the rivers and lakes,” Livingston sighs.
The day the lake got to a crisis point, alarming officials that it could actually go dry, the pitter-patter of rain interrupted a City Council meeting — just as state officials granted permission to lay pipe through the park. The pipeline company needed four days, and the work will be done just before Dec. 6.
The rain bought a few more days — and a weight lifted from Livingston’s shoulders.
But only temporarily.
Over the next six months, an engineering firm being paid another $98,000 will investigate the possibility of finding groundwater. Livingston is wary because the lower river is spring-fed and she fears tapping the aquifer will further harm the waterway and cause it to dry up, too.
And so she prays.
As does Robert Lee’s water superintendent Eddie Ray Roberts. The $1.55 million pipeline he’s building to get water from the nearby town doesn’t include the cost of actually purchasing the water. So the town has to find a cheaper alternative. Roberts’ solution?
“Prayer,” he says laughing.
He believes groundwater may be the town’s best option. But drilling wells could cost another $250,000, and it’s not a sure bet.
“If we go ahead and start drilling … and six months from now we have not found a well, we’re out of water,” he explained.
In Pendleton, a neighborhood along the Texas-Louisiana border, residents were surprised to find the intake pipe that draws water from the Sabine River was exposed, unable to suck in water for distribution to the community.
Jerry Clark, general manager of the Sabine River Authority of Texas, said the subdivision has permission to drop a pump from a bridge into deeper waters. Then they may put the pipe on a barge to get it to the deepest point possible, where the pipe will be protected from the slowly vanishing lake. The cost: $50,000.
“This is the most immediate thing that could be done,” he said.
Groesbeck’s mayor knows her pipeline is only a six-month solution. Now, she is considering buying the rock quarry and channeling water into a reservoir. Or she could drill wells. All she needs is money.
“When we find there’s really water to drill a well for, we’ll find the money,” Livingston says.
Even that is just a hope.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)