Residents Could Lose Land In Dispute

It can happen to anyone who owns land in the state of Texas. A mistake in a survey could allow the state to claim your property as it's own. That's what a group of residents in the Red Springs and Sand Flat areas of Smith County are currently facing.

"Everything that I've really worked for my whole life is right here," said J.R. Brewers, pointing to land his family has owned for 40 years. He has been paying on it for the past 25 years. Six months ago, he paid it off. But about a month ago, that all changed. He received a letter saying he didn't own this land, the state did, if a vacancy claim is approved.

"I lose my home, my land, my shops," said Brewer, "pretty well everything."

A new survey performed by a couple of East Texas businessmen is trying to prove there is a 992 acre tract of land which lies between two existing surveys. It's that land the state could claim. If that happens, the residents currently living on that land would have the first right to buy the land back at fair market value.

"Sure, I can buy it back, present market value," said Brewer, "but at my age, that's going to be hard borrowing money, to buy it back. I don't know what I'll do. I really don't."

The same goes for Eddie McFarland. His land is at stake too.

"It's affecting our lives and our livelihood," said McFarland. "We can't sell our properties, we can't have it mortgaged or anything. And it may last two years, it may last ten years. We don't know."

Attorney Ben Jarvis of Tyler has filed one of two vacancy claims issued for this land. The people he represents stand to gain royalty rights on any future oil produced from this land, as the state will own the mineral rights. Jarvis says his new survey is more accurate than those performed in the 1800's. He feels the current land owners needed to do a better job researching the property.

"If the lawyers examined the title or a title company issued a title policy, they may have made a mistake on it," said Jarvis, "it is not private property that somebody else can deed to them. It is state property."

The issue is now in the hands of the General Land Office, which can accept or reject the claim. There is also an extensive appeals process, which could take years. In the meantime, J.R. and his neighbors can only wait.

Kevin Berns, reporting.