Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Power Of Old Documents?

This morning, I got a call from a neighbour. It seemed that they had come across an old document that they thought might be important. They wanted me to have a quick look. This simple request turned into an interesting day of looking at old documents, with some possibly surprising and potentially significant consequences.

Let me begin with a bit of context. Some time ago, the land that adjoins our properties was bought by some developers. They took the previously rural land and have been building upon it. There was a great deal of opposition to this development from the community. However, with the assistance of some crooked and corrupt politicians, the developers were able to get their way.

The document that my neighbours wanted me to look at was an old plat, from 1933. For those who are not familiar with the terminology, a plat is a diagrammatic document that specifies property ownership and usage. On the old plat, there was a annotation that there was a forty foot right of access that ran along the edge of the land that is being developed, immediately adjacent to our properties. This right of access, was news to us all. We resolved to try and find out who had that right of access. This seemed like an interesting historical artifact, but little else.

When I returned home, I recalled that I had copies of a number of documents pertaining to the ownership of my property, from the local court house. I was provided with these when I bought the land. Although I had looked at them then, I could not recall in too much detail whether they might have some relevant information to the right of access, so I dug them out.

Most of the documents were fairly straightforward and of little interest. They concerned the purchase of the land and the passing of it to the wife and son, when the husband of the previous owner died. However, there was also another document that I had not paid too much attention to previously. This was a long and very complicated document specifying the division of land, including the land which I now own, between seven relatives, when another person had died. What immediately got my attention this time was the date. It was dated 1933 and even was signed in the same month as the plat.

As I ploughed through the copy of this old document, I came across something remarkable, that I had never noticed before. The relevance to the question of the right of access suddenly became clear. Let me quote the relevant sections (do not feel compelled to read this - I will paraphrase below):

"The eastern forty feet of this lot, however, is hereby subject to and there is hereby created thereon by the parties hereto a servitude of passage and of way, the whole distance thereof north and south...[there is a long and detailed description of the location here, which matches the plat]...for the use and benefit and in favor of the following described property now belonging to [NAME 1], to-wit;

[Another detailed paragraph long property description]

And the right is hereby conferred unto the said [NAME 1], her heirs and assigns, and [NAME 2] and [NAME 3], or either of them, their heirs and assigns, to dedicate said servitude of passage to public use when any one of the owners of the property on the east or on the west of said right-of-way so desire; but until so dedicated, said servitude of passage and of use to be considered as a private servitude for the benefit of the said property of [NAME 1] and of the property herein described."

The reason that this is of interest is that it provides the basis of the right of way that appeared on the plat. What is perhaps more interesting is that this right of way seems to be triggerable by the 'owners of property on the east or the west'. Both my neighbours and I are the property owners to the west!

Of course, there are many questions that need to be resolved. For instance, does the right of servitude carry over when the property was sold? Has this right ever been dissolved? However, as I know the lawyers of the developers and they are none too sharp, it is just possible that my neighbours and I may have a claim against the developers, based upon this right of servitude. They may have to buy it back from us.

I spent most of this evening digging around in the various legal databases that cover Louisiana law, and the judgements of Louisiana cases, where rights of servitude were at issue. For the most part, this was rather uninformative. Most cases seem to concern fights over access to waterways and tussles between municipalities and property owners. However, what little information I found that was relevant gives some small grounds for optimism.

Tomorrow, I will have a word with some people who know a great deal more about the law than I. Fortunately, I have an ex-student who is an expert in this kind of matter. However, what I believe this does clearly demonstrate is both the importance and intrinsic interest of old documents. At the very least, today I have learned a great deal about the history of my land and the land around it.

The CP

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