Family loses 120-year claim to land near Tempe
by Craig Harris - Aug. 10, 2012 11:44 PM
The Republic | azcentral.com
In 1892, 20 years before Arizona became a state, a pioneer family settled a dusty patch of desert along the Salt River near what is now Tempe Beach Park.
Through the decades, that land passed from one generation down to the next.
It goes without saying that they always believed it was theirs. But, after a seven-year battle with the state, that notion has been turned on its head -- and it's likely that their birthright tradition has come to an end. And as if to add insult to injury, the members of the Sussex family are now considered trespassers in the eyes of the law.
A Maricopa County jury this week ordered the family to pay the state $1,500 for trespassing on the oddly shaped slice of land that was determined to belong to the state, or more precisely, the Arizona State Land Department.
The only silver lining, according to 72-year-old Steve Sussex, is that the $1,500 is far less than the nearly half-a-million dollars in damages the state sought for the trespassing violation and lost revenue from the land.
"I guess we kind of, like, won because we only have to pay $1,500," Sussex said. "But as far as losing the property to the state, I will never be happy."
For more than a century, the small adobe dwelling at 302 W. First St., Tempe, has housed Sussex, his forebears and his children. Nestled against the Union Pacific Railroad tracks and Metro light-rail tracks, the neighborhood is home to the old Fiesta Bowl headquarters and the Sail Inn, a popular Tempe nightspot.
Between the adobe and South Farmer Avenue is a rectangular parcel of roughly 1 acre that the family uses to access their home. For years, they have also put that acre to their own personal use, sometimes leasing it out for storage.
According to court records, Sussex contends his great-grandfather, Jesus Martinez, first possessed the land eight years before the turn of the 20th century, and family members maintained it thereafter. An attorney for Sussex also claims the state didn't obtain clear title to the land until 1963, through a deal with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
According to court papers, the state based that 1963 claim to the land on a 1910 action in which the federal government dedicated large swaths of land -- apparently including the Sussex homestead -- to Arizona's territorial government as part of the statehood process.
In 2004, the state apparently became aware Sussex was on its land, and it sent him a letter telling him to vacate. Enclosed: a $5 check for his troubles.
Sussex refused to move, so the next year the State Land Department sued him and his wife, Virginia. The state did not claim it owned the land under the adobe -- that, it turns out, is legally owned by Tempe -- but it did claim it owned the acre strip in front of the home. The state also alleged the Sussex family had trespassed on that property and improperly collected rent.
The case dragged on for five years until a Maricopa County judge in 2010 agreed with the state and awarded the state title to the 1-acre strip.
The trespassing issue, however, was not resolved until this week. After a three-day jury trial in Maricopa County Superior Court, the Sussex family was ordered to pay the state damages.
Jack Wilenchik, who represented the Sussex family, said the couple are indigent and do not have $1,500 to settle up with the state, which he estimated spent thousands of dollars to collect the comparatively paltry sum.
Vanessa Hickman, deputy state land commissioner, declined to comment on the case because she said the Sussex family could appeal. She also declined to say why the state filed suit after the family had used the property for decades.
The Land Department is responsible for managing 9 million acres of state trust land throughout Arizona.
The federal government gave states land when they joined the union, and the Arizona-New Mexico Enabling Act in 1910, two years before Arizona became a state, was the mechanism for transferring federal land to Arizona.
In Arizona, trust land primarily is used to benefit public schools, and it can be sold, leased or used to generate royalties.
Sussex said his adult daughter and her four sons now live in the adobe, which is just behind the state land parcel, but he's unsure how they can now get to their home without trespassing on state property.
And he may have another problem: Sussex does not know if Tempe will allow the family to keep living in the home because it owns the land underneath.
Nikki Ripley, a Tempe spokeswoman, said the city has been monitoring the state lawsuit. Once the appeal process ends, she said, "the city will decide how to proceed on its parcel."
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