What began as a routine Rincon City Council meeting Monday night turned out to be a long narrative by city attorney Raymond Dickey and punctuated by Mayor Ken Lee and Councilman Paul Wendelken on giving the “whole story” on the ongoing land dispute with Herman Woods.
Andy Hutson asked city council if they could let the citizens know what was going on after hearing one story after another on the Woods matter.
“I hear this at the bank, I hear it at family dinners, I hear it that ‘Big Bad Rincon’ is taking property from people again and that we’ve done it many times before,’” Wendelken said.
Wendelken added that the property in question was in dispute among two or three different entities as to who actually owned it.
“IP thought they owned it. The IDA was supposed to have included that in their purchase. I’m told there may have been a mix up there,” he said. “City of Rincon thought at one point we owned it or there was discussion between the previous city manager and IP that they were either going to give or sell that piece of property to us.”
Wendelken said that the city has used the parking lot on the other side of the driveway “for at least 20 years.”
“We’ve cut the grass, we maintained the grass for at least probably 20 years almost up to the railroad tracks probably on some occasions, so we maintained that up until last September,” he said.
Wendelken said the city did that with the thinking it would acquire the land from International Paper.
Dickey said about 30 property owners deeded access to the city for a surface water line that the city needs because of its state Environmental Protection Division restrictions.
“All of ’em agreed ’cause they know we’ve got to have it in order for the city to grow and for them to develop,” he said. “Mr. Woods took an opportunity — he tried to hold the city hostage by making them put in his infrastructure in his commercial development, and the city said, ‘no.’
“If you’re going to develop a piece of property, you’re responsible for putting your own infrastructure in and he refused to do it. He wanted the city to pay $60,000 for his infrastructure. So the city decided, ‘if you’re not going to deal with us, we’ll just condemn the easement across the very back of your property, a 20-foot easement which on his subdivision plans, he already had a 20-foot easement across the back of his property anyway, for a water line.’ And so that’s where the fight began.”
Dickey said had Woods knocked down the existing well house with the city’s only backup generator for its water delivery, it could have interrupted the city’s flow of water to its customers. The city has accused Woods of using a bulldozer to knock that part of a well house built on the land in contention.
“If he had tore all of that down, when he was taking the other building down, it would put the city out of water,” he said. “We wouldn’t be supplying water right now to all the citizens.”
He did say that some of the cause of the dispute might be laid to politics. He said that with personnel changes in city government there has been a loss of institutional knowledge.
“Mr. Woods can claim what he wants,” Dickey said, “but he was restricted anyway from ever using, and this is one thing I want to make clear — when I say a little piece of property, the total property back there is .66 of an acre. When I say the smaller little piece of property, I’m talking about 8 feet on one side and 11 feet on the other side.”
Dickey said Judge John R. Turner’s decision to allow the city to continue work on the project because the building had been completed made Woods’ motion irrelevant. Judge Turner has ordered both sides to come up with a value for the property, which would then be placed in the court registry.
“Mr. Woods was always going to be compensated for the little tiny section,” Dickey said, “and so at that point in time, when we filed that response and we put that statement in there that it was a completed act at this point, there was no reason to rule on a motion to make us stop work because it was done.”
The city now has to tear down 80 percent –85 percent of the building at an estimated cost of $250,000.
Hutson asked if the lack of surveying the property was the only thing the city might have done differently.
“Monday morning quarterbacking is easy to do,” Lee said.
Dickey said the city still may have a claim for adverse possession of the property through the city’s maintenance and use of it.
“If you hold property for 21 years, it’s yours,” he said. “So the city got this property in 1972 and that well was put in before the rest of this was, so it may have been more than 21 years.”
Said Wendelken: “The only thing I’ll say is that if we condemn property we still have to compensate the person.”
Wendelken also asked that citizens with questions should direct them to the city.
“Anytime you want the truth, as much as we can allow it with court pending cases and things like that, you can come to a council meeting, call any of us, talk to the city attorney, the city manager,” he said. “I want the truth out.