wplg logo

Who owns the land underwater? Court battle could be critical for many South Florida homeowners

POMPANO BEACH, Fla. – A judge has ruled homeowners will have a say after an investment company claimed to own parts of the Hillsboro Inlet and the backs of several million-dollar waterfront homes.

Local 10 News first broke the story in March, and the fight has intensified.

The questions remain: Who owns this land above and below water? And could this happen to you?

For some residents along Bay Drive, their oceanfront property and their amazing views are in jeopardy.

They weren’t told someone else was claiming rights to parts of their land and surrounding property until they got a letter from the Broward County property appraiser giving them a heads-up.

Attorneys for those property owners are now in court, demanding that Bay Drive residents have a say.

“They have the right to be heard so their property is not taken without due process,” said George Lemieux, an attorney for the homeowners.

The homeowners are now demanding a trial, saying the judge didn’t have all the information when she entered a default judgment in favor of Hillsboro Inlet Investments.

That company recently claimed ownership to areas that include what’s known as the shores parcel. It’s the back of homes, including the pool area of one of them. Plus parts of the Coast Guard station.

But much of the property in question is underwater — submerged land.

“That is the land we are effectively talking about,” said Andrew Blasi, an attorney representing Hillsboro Inlet Investments, pointing to a map. “It eroded away over time. But it doesn’t mean it is not privately owned land.”

The investment company is demanding the property appraiser change official records to reflect their ownership.

Submerged navigable lands are considered to be owned by the state.

“There was a peninsula there,” Blasi said. “No different than the lot my home is on and yours. It was cultivatable, developable land, platted an—d privately owned.”

Hillsboro Inlet Investments named several defunct companies that once had ownership to land. And since no one responded to the lawsuit, they got the default judgment.

However, the current owners (who have been paying taxes on the shores parcel) and the state (which manages the inlet) were left out.

“The plaintiff was careful to name only parties that it knew were no longer in existence and therefore would never come out of the woodwork and fight what the plaintiff was saying,” said Dr. Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University.

According to state records, the man listed as a manager of Hillsboro Inlet Investments is William Swaim, who has refused to talk to Local 10 News about his motive for this parcel of property — specifically the part underwater.

“He’s either gonna develop it, sell it or go after the people who use it and say you are infringing on my property,” Jarvis preditced.

This is much more than just an issue on Bay Drive. With so much waterfront property in South Florida, can someone just come and claim to own the back of your home?

The answer seems to be yes.

It’s happened in Palm Beach County.

One of Swaim’s companies obtained a deed and ownership of the mangroves and parts of a lagoon behind the Wellington Arms condominium.

Swaim’s company demanded the condo remove their dock over his land.

A source says the condo will now pay Swaim and his company $150,000 for use of their dock and the waterway.

And Swaim is fighting with the town to develop the mangrove area.

As for Bay Drive, Judge Michele Towbin Singer agreed that the current homeowners need to be heard. The property appraiser was told not to change any records for now.

But put on your life preserver, because sorting out who owns what here may be complicated, with deeds and ownership dating back to the late 1800s.

About the Author:

Jeff Weinsier joined Local 10 News in September 1994. He is currently an investigative reporter for Local 10. He is also responsible for the very popular Dirty Dining segments.