When Texas Insurance Commissioner Jose Montemayor first read of the plight a group of Elgin landowners had stumbled into, he immediately compared it to a tornado “coming out of nowhere” and devastating the lives of those in its path.
“I was just absolutely appalled,” Montemayor said of the situation. So much so that intervening in an effort to resolve the matter became a top priority. “I couldn’t wait to get to the office and get to work on this.”
It was over a cup of coffee at his home that Montemayor first read about the roughly two dozen landowners near Elgin who had become victims of a surveying error more than 100 years old. Because of the error, land that had been purchased in good faith by the owners and their ancestors, would have to be repurchased from the rightful owner – the state – for fair market value estimated at somewhere between $5,000 and $7,000 per acre. The state’s General Land Office is required by law to sell the property, which benefits the state’s Permanent School Fund. Some of the owners were insured, but many were not.
It was while reading the Austin American-Statesman’s compassionate account of the error and its effect on the landowners that Montemayor struck upon an idea. He would bring together title company officials, Texas Department of Insurance staff, the landowners, Land Commissioner David Dewhurst’s staff and Rep. Robert Cook, D-Eagle Lake, to expedite resolution of the error.
On January 6, 12 of the landowners filled out applications in Elgin to buy back their property totalling 26 acres, a move fully funded by the insuring title companies and costing more than $82,000. Montemayor estimates his meeting shaved at least two years off the process of reclaiming their land for the 12 landowners. “The state’s discovery of the surveying error was a financial disaster that insurance could remedy,” Montemayor said.
According to American-Statesman reports, the land under dispute, the Stovall Strip, is about 400 feet wide and 11 miles long, totalling roughly 533 acres. It is a scrap file, a leftover plot between two large Mexican or early Texas land grants that did not quite meet. The no-man’s-land between most likely resulted from a measurement error made by surveyors not privileged with today’s advanced tools.
Typically, the state will claim such scrap properties, but this one went unnoticed for more than 100 years, eventually being bought and sold, fenced, divided and sold again. It wasn’t until an Elgin company interested in expansion did a comprehensive title search that it was discovered the property actually belonged to the state.
Many of the owners purchased the land decades ago or inherited it according to the American-Statesman. And title searches, if they were done at all, seldom reflected transactions beyond 50 years prior, meaning the state’s ownership of the land rarely came up.
Montemayor had hoped to assist the remaining landowners in remedying their situation as well by requesting that the state offer them significantly reduced buyback rates. That was not possible, however, and more than 500 acres remains in question. But state authorities and the General Land Office are continuing to work on the matter.
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