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Finding owner is no walk in the park

Tar Heel Hattler – September 2006

Finding owner is no walk in the park
By Frank Maley

For decades, Forsyth County officials weren’t sure who owned Westview Park in Winston-Salem. It’s in the middle of the posh Buena Vista neighborhood — developed in the 1920s by a member of the Reynolds tobacco clan — and is near Forsyth Country Club, so a developer might have wrung a nice profit from its five wooded acres.

For years, county officials assumed that the city owned it. They discovered it didn’t during a computer-mapping project in the 1980s and listed the owner as unknown, says Pete Rodda, county tax assessor and collector. Recently, several people have claimed pieces of it. “It just starts the clock. You file the quitclaim deed, you hopefully pay taxes on it, you go down and start using it, you plant bushes or you build something on it, and if you can make this continue for a period of time, then you might have a better claim than the next guy. That doesn’t automatically mean you own it.”

After Emmett Caldwell of Durham planted bushes and built a fence in the park in April, the issue heated up, Rodda says. “The other people that had filed deeds started complaining, and the next thing you know, we had a bit of a mess.”

County officials researched it again, looking for the most recent ownership. The search took them back to 1923, when William N. Reynolds, brother of R.J., developed Buena Vista. They found a map from that year showing the property as a “park and playground.”

Today, developers routinely transfer ownership of common areas to neighborhood associations. In the ’20s, that wasn’t the rule. When Reynolds died in 1951, the park passed through his estate to the W.N. Reynolds Residuary Trust, says Vince Scanlon, spokesman for Wachovia Wealth Management. Charlotte-based Wachovia helps manage the trust.

Rodda agrees that the trust owns the land, which it plans to preserve as a park. But Caldwell plans to press his claim. He wants to dedicate half of it as a park and figures he can get at least $500,000 for the rest. He claims Reynolds sold part of the park in 1923 to his grandfather, and he says he has a deed. “I cannot come across it right now. We have it packed away. We will be presenting that in court.”

The mess might have been avoided if the county hadn’t given up the search in the ’80s, Rodda admits. “That was probably a mistake on the part of the tax office at that time because, generally speaking, somebody’s going to own it.”

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