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It’s just a little spit of land that you’ll miss if you blink. But it has cost the city of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and a homeowner a combined hundreds of thousands of dollars in litigation over just who owns it. And the fight’s not over. In an increasingly common move in South Florida, the city now wants to condemn the site and take it for public use. But homeowner Stephen Nagy won’t give it up, never mind the resounding defeat Florida’s 4th District Court of Appeal handed him late last month. Nagy, who now vows to take his battle to the Florida Supreme Court, says his predicament offers a message for all property owners. Not only have his property lines been wrongly redrawn, he says, but a municipal government is seeking to take his property for no better reason than the political interests of nearby residents. Is that the public use that’s meant when governments take land? Nagy and his attorney, Gary Farmer of Fort Lauderdale, say the matter goes far beyond a David vs. Goliath tale. It’s an abuse of established law, says Farmer, who formerly handled eminent domain cases for the state attorney general’s office in Tallahassee. “I’ve never seen a case like this, where it is so clear that a piece of property was never conveyed, then someone bought it and then they were told they couldn’t buy it,” Farmer says, adding that the matter violates eminent domain rules. “Nagy paid for the [alley] and the city only wants to compensate him for the little bit in back of his house.” All this for a 3,718-square-foot alley about 500 feet long? Remember that the axiom of real estate is location. That’s the very heart of this battle: the location of boundaries and section lines, decades-old surveys and what they did or didn’t locate, and what the alley is located in and near. Dry, esoteric stuff, right? Add in the alley’s location along Fort Lauderdale’s highly visible and long contentious beach. And a political district of actively voting residents who happen to live in a special assessment district for a $3.6 million rejuvenation of Northeast 33rd Avenue. Also figure in that the avenue intersects with Northeast 18th Street. The little alleyway runs behind homes on the north side of Northeast 18th Street. Assistant city manager Bud Bentley says the alley is key to the avenue’s rehab, mainly as a bike path linking the avenue to the beach. Now the picture comes into better focus. Heck, the alley matter is even on the Web site of the powerful North Beach Island Alliance, an association of about 32 single-family and condo associations from Oakland Park Boulevard to Sunrise Boulevard, says alliance president Gary Sieger. What’s more, as property cases go, Bentley says, the little site packs an added punch. It has proven as costly for the city in time and almost in lawyers as the city’s high-profile Hyde Park Market eminent domain case over the Related Group’s desire to build high-rise apartments downtown. And the city’s effort to take the alley isn’t even settled yet. Here’s how the ruckus started. Shortly after Nagy and his wife, Debbie, purchased their house on the north side of Northeast 18th Street in 1995, they noticed drug users and prostitutes using the alleyway at the end of their backyard. They started to fence it off. The neighborhood residents, who had used the alley to get to the beach for at least 20 years, complained. The city told Nagy to forget the fence. Nagy wondered: Does the city own the alley? A title search said no. But the devil’s in the details, as the saying goes. And here’s how the matter ended up in court. The title search indicated the alley itself was never platted or deeded, though surrounding lots were. That meant it still belonged to the Weir family. The surveyor who platted the land in the 1920s for the Weir family subdivided a government section. But the surveyor didn’t use that section line for the boundaries of the lots he was creating. That meant that once the lots were laid out, there was a “leftover” piece of land — the alleyway. And subsequent surveys also indicated an alley. Nagy went to an heir of the Weirs for a quitclaim deed to the alleyway. (Such a deed, it should be noted, doesn’t warrant that the grantor actually has title.) Armed with that, he again tried to build a fence. The city blocked that and tried to get easements to the alley from other property owners, according to court documents. That’s when Nagy, as Perimeter Property Inc., sued the city in Broward Circuit Court to quiet title — or establish rightful ownership — to the alleyway. The city countersued for what’s called a prescriptive easement, saying the public use of the land for more than 20 years meant a property owner couldn’t refuse access to it. Enmeshed in all this are Nagy’s allegations of city and neighborhood shenanigans like vandalism, trumped-up code violations, delayed building permits for Nagy’s house remodeling and other alleged ill will. And neighborhood accusations about Nagy. Assistant city manager Bentley says the whole thing really started over Nagy’s thwarted effort to buy an adjacent vacant lot to give him a clear view of the ocean. When he couldn’t get the lot, Nagy went after the alley, which Nagy denies. Meanwhile, neither side got what it wanted in court. Broward Circuit Judge Estella Moriarty ruled there was no prescriptive easement and that the alley didn’t exist. That meant the homeowners along the alleyway each had been given new property lines. Nagy appealed, claiming the judge disregarded key case law and ignored a history of surveys in favor of what Farmer calls the city’s “creation” — a flawed and inaccurate survey. According to court documents, that survey used Mylar overlays of several older surveys that had been either enlarged or reduced to make the boundaries line up to indicate the alley didn’t exist. The city also appealed for a prescriptive easement. Again, both Nagy and the city lost. The 4th District Court of Appeal upheld both rulings of the lower court. Robert Schwartz, the city’s appellate attorney, declined comment, except to say the case isn’t a simple one. “Most people don’t understand the property issues involved here,” he says. But Farmer takes a strong stance on the appellate ruling. “What this opinion does is to undo property lines in existence since 1925 and redistribute property,” he says. “This opinion does such an injustice to what occurred in this case. We had maps, sketches and surveys prepared by the city itself showing the hiatus existed but the 4th DCA ruled it didn’t. They used a manipulated exhibit [by the city] and say it doesn’t exist. It’s contrary to all the documentation.” A motion for a rehearing was filed earlier this month. City Commissioner Tim Smith, whose district includes the beach area, says he doesn’t care what the courts say about the matter. “[The alley] has been in the public domain for 50 years, and everyone knows it,” Smith says. “Through legal trickery, he got his hands on a piece of it, but it is not morally just. There is no principle that says he owns it. The citizens are very angry with him. It was never his and never could be his. And the neighborhood thinks government is incompetent, asking how one man can hold us all hostage.” Sounds as if Nagy may be holding his ground against Goliath.

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