A Long Island couple has paid taxes on a waterfront plot of land for 17 years, but when they went to sell the property last year, the county said they never owned it.
Since 1995, Kathy and Gary Elgort of Northport have paid property taxes on piece of land across from their house on Fresh Pond Road in Suffolk County. They cut the grass there. They set up lawn furniture and fly a tiny American flag there.
"It has been used from 1869, when the house was built, as the property belonging to this house," said Kathy Elgort.
Last year, the couple decided to sell the house, but to their surprise, Suffolk County blocked them from selling the pond-side lot along with it.
The county now claims the property was subdivided and sold before the Elgorts moved in -- meaning the couple never owned the plot of land even though they've paid taxes on it for all these years.
"It's definitely un-American. And if they can do it to me, they can do it to somebody else," Kathy Elgort said.
County Executive Steven Bellone's office says the waterfront strip became part of a county park in 1989 when the county purchased the pond. The Elgorts contend the 2,600 square foot plot was mistakenly lumped in with the pond because it happens to border the body of water.
"The only thing that happened is ... someone drew a line in the wrong place and suddenly I'm stuck where I'm stuck," said Gary Elgort.
There is considerable evidence supporting the Elgorts' claim of ownership.
In 2000, when the couple was building an addition to their house, a land surveyor warned them about confusion in the tax map regarding that park. The Elgorts immediately went to the Town of Huntington assessor to get a corrected tax map. They also got a corrected deed and an affidavit from the previous owner who testified she was the sole owner of the disputed land and that no party ever laid claim to it during the 1980s.
Vanessa Baird-Streeter, a spokeswoman for the Suffolk County executive, said the county is blocking the Elgorts from selling the plot of land because "the description of the property as contained in the deed the county obtained in 1989 includes the subject property."
The county contends one of the deeds in the Elgorts' chain of title is flawed because it is a "quit claim" deed, where one party relinquishes any claim on a property even though that party doesn't necessarily own the parcel.
Even if the Elgort's chain of title is flawed, Suffolk County Legislator John Kennedy Jr. said the Elgorts could potentially be due a tax refund if the county's chain of title is valid.
"The county is not in the business of taxing people on land that they don't own," Kennedy said.
Kennedy said he would urge the county attorney to expedite his research on the county's chain of title to the land so the Elgorts can either cancel or proceed with their sale.
Dennis Cohen, the Suffolk County attorney, declined comment, saying he needed more time to research the matter.
Baird-Streeter said the county would decide whether to continue blocking the Elgort sale by May 1. The Elgorts' contract to sell the disputed property expires on May 1.
"When an entity can make a mistake and people can recognize there's a mistake but refuse to correct it, then how do you know that anything is safe," Gary Elgort said. "All they have to do is accidentally take over your property and then go, 'Oh sorry, you can't have it back."