By DOTTY NIST
SOUTH WALTON, FLA – Attorney Steve Hall has emphasized that only parties brought to court in quiet title cases can have their property interest negatively impacted.
On Nov. 7, Hall, of the local law firm Hall & Runnells, presented a report to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) on the quiet title (QT) process and QT actions with regard to Walton County and particularly the beaches. This was at the BCC meeting on that date at the South Walton Annex.
Hall had been enlisted by the BCC to begin researching the issue in May, soon after beachfront property owners in the Beach Highlands subdivision succeeding in having a court grant deeds to those owners for beach areas adjacent to their lots that had been marked “Beach” on the 1960 subdivision plat. There had been concern that public beach accesses adjacent to the newly-extended lots would be closed off following the court action. However, the access has remained open.
There has been difficulty for the county in being aware of some QT filings, as many of them do not include the county as a party to the lawsuit.
Hall explained that in Florida a QT action is a “statutory proceeding” to establish an individual’s right of ownership over real property “against an adverse claim.” In the proceeding, the court decides which party has a “higher quality of claim,” he told the commissioners.
He indicated that the judges presiding over the cases order the granting of possession to one of the parties as well as other remedies.
Hall noted that anyone can initiate QT action and that the party doing so is not required to “join everyone” who may have an interest in the subject property. No one who is not a defendant can have their property interests impacted by a particular QT action, he clarified.
While the bulk of QT actions are filed to secure marketable title for properties obtained through tax deeds, Hall continued, QT actions are also used to settle boundary or access disputes and conflicts related to easements, for example the right to use a walkway to get to the beach.
He brought up and discussed a number of QT actions that had been filed in connection with property in south Walton County, among those cases filed regarding the Beach Highlands subdivision, Blue Mountain Beach Subdivision No. 1, the Gulf Shore Manor subdivision, and the Gulf Trace subdivision. Hall indicated that these were cases aimed at obtaining a determination of property owners’ rights in relation to dedications, developer covenants, or other restrictions included in original subdivision plats.
While, per Florida Statutes and case law, a final order in a QT action can only negatively affect property interest of parties before the court, he explained, the county may have both direct and representative interest in such cases filed in connection with property in Walton County.
The county’s direct interest, Hall observed, is in its role as holder of a specific right in connection with certain real property, and its representative interest is as steward for broader rights of the public in connection with certain real property.
However, he stressed, neither type of interest, including right of use, can be harmed by a QT action unless the county is a defendant in that case and subject to a final judgment in the specific QT action.
The county may seek to intervene/become a party in a QT case, although it is required for the judge to agree in order for this to take place, Hall said.
One of the cases referenced in Hall’s discussion was one related to the Gulf Shore Manor subdivision, Kennedy v. Walton County and Smart. This is in connection with a 1925 subdivision plat showing areas between the seaward edge of platted lots and the water as “Gulf Shore Beach” and “Bathing Beach.”
In the case, owners of several contiguous lots, including a beachfront lot, are seeking a quiet title action to relieve them of any claim Walton County might have to property south of those lots in the areas designated as beach on the plat.
The case is ongoing in Walton County Circuit Court, and Walton County has filed a response, referencing the right of the public to customary use of the beach, in opposition to the Kennedy complaint.
By DOTTY NIST