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State files lawsuit against resort owners

State files lawsuit against resort owners

Posted: Wednesday, December 24, 2008 11:08 pm
By: John Brannon Messenger Staff Reporter

 By JOHN BRANNON Messenger Staff Reporter Just in time for Christmas: A state lawsuit against activist co-owners of a Reelfoot Lake resort. Can anyone say “riparian rights”? On Dec. 18, Tennessee Attor-ney General Robert E. Cooper filed a civil action in Obion County Chancery Court against Natalie Denton of Samburg and her niece, Ann Hornbeak of St. Tammany Parish, La. “(They) have trespassed on state property by posting signs, threatening prosecution, threatening to fence, attempt to sell and lease and generally interfering with the public’s use and enjoyment of public property. (They) continue to claim that they have a right to do so,” Cooper states in his complaint. “The state seeks to permanently enjoin any trespass, encroachment, attempted sale or interference in any manner with the public’s enjoyment and use of its property by the defendants …” Background The two women named in the lawsuit are co-owners of Acorn Lodge, located on the south shore of Reelfoot Lake. The property abuts property owned by the State of Tennessee. Reelfoot Lake is owned by the State of Tennessee and managed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. And thereby hangs the rub. Simply stated, there is disagreement about who owns what. And ownership implies power to control. The focus of the legal action is a 6.4-acre tract of land underlying Reelfoot Lake and adjacent to the Denton property. The legal wrangling can be traced back to 1907 when P.D. Hornbeak, Mrs. Denton’s grandfather, purchased a 334-acre tract from Judge Harris of West Tennessee Land Company. The acreage abutted Reelfoot Lake. “The deed expressly reserved the riparian rights of the property to Judge Harris. P.D. Hornbeak received no ownership of any interest of Reelfoot Lake whatsoever,” the lawsuit states. The history The state’s lawsuit asserts that: • In 1913, the Tennessee Supreme Court in the case “Cates vs. West Tennessee Land Co.” held that Reelfoot Lake was a navigable body of water and its ownership would be held in trust for the general good and benefit of the people. • The court further held that the land under the waters of the lake from the ordinary low water mark was public land and, therefore, was under control of the State of Tennessee, except for the “Doherty Grants,” that were granted by the colony of North Carolina prior to the (1811-12) formation of the lake. The court further ruled that the state could condemn the Doherty grants to obtain title to those lands under the waters of Reelfoot. • Following the Cates decision, in 1913, the State of Tennessee condemned the Doherty Grant interests which were owned by West Tennessee Land Company, giving the state full ownership of Reelfoot Lake, which included any interest in Reelfoot Lake adjacent to the land owned by P.D. Hornbeak. • Over the years, P.D. Hornbeak and his heirs have sold off several pieces of his original tract. • In 1925, the state legislature appointed and constituted the Reelfoot Lake Commission to determine the ordinary low water mark of Reelfoot Lake in order to locate the state’s boundary line and acquire by purchase or condemnation where necessary a “buffer strip” from the owners of land abutting the lake. • A survey of the ordinary low water mark was made by H.E. Hamilton, engineer and surveyor, by the authority and under supervision of Reelfoot Lake Commission. • On Dec. 20, 1927, the state filed a petition to condemn a 6.4 acre tract of land owned by P.D. Hornbeak and others as part of the buffer zone. A jury was impaneled and awarded $1,250 as the value of the property. P.D. Hornbeak appealed the decision. A full jury trial was held on Sept. 17, 1930. • A jury of 12 Obion County citizens found that the fair cash market value of the 6.4 acres was $1,850. • On Sept. 17, 1930, Obion County Circuit Court entered an order vesting title of the 6.4-acre buffer zone to the State of Tennessee and awarded P.D. Hornbeak $1,850. “On Nov. 29, 1930, by check number 102, the Circuit Court paid the judgment to J.C. Fry, attorney for P.D. Hornbeak. • On March 29, 1946, heirs of P.D. Hornbeak established and duly recorded the R.G. & M.H. Hornbeak Reelfoot Lake Subdivision adjacent to the state’s external boundary line of the 6.4 acres already acquired by the state. … R.G. and M.H. Hornbeak proceeded to sell lots in the subdivision. • In 1983 or 1984, Mrs. Denton and her daughter acquired the remaining interest in the original P.D. Hornbeak tract. • For many years, the State of Tennessee allowed, by lease or permit, the owners of lots in the Hornbeak Subdivision to build docks and have direct access to Reelfoot Lake through portions of the 6.4 acres. • Natalie Denton retained ownership of one or more of the lots in the Hornbeak Subdivision and paid to the state nominal fees to utilize a portion of the 6.4-acre buffer zone belonging to the state. What now? Given that historical background, what prompts Cooper to seek redress of grievance via a legal action in Obion County Chancery Court? His formal filing yields an answer. • “In July 2006, three-quarters of a century after the state had acquired the 6.4 acres, the defendant, Natalie Denton, wrote a letter to the State of Tennessee in which she stated that she had ‘been reviewing my deed to my property’ and claimed to own the 6.4-acre buffer zone and further claimed that she owned a portion of Reelfoot Lake itself extending ‘75-plus feet or more off shore.’ • “In her letter, Denton demanded that the state provide her certified copies of ‘proof of purchase’ of the 6.4-acre tract which had been bought and paid for by the state three-quarters of a century earlier. • “In September and October 2007, (she) wrote letters to property owners in the Hornbeak Subdivision asserting ownership of the 6.4 acre buffer zone and forbidding the owners from entering the property adjacent to their lots without her written permission. • “(She) further asserted that she would be selling off the buffer zone property adjacent to their lots. • “(She) told each of the owners of the Hornbeak Subdivision that they would have to purchase portions of the state-owned buffer zone at a cost of $35,000 each to retain access to the state’s external boundary line. (She) was attempting to sell the 6.4 acres for a total of approximately $1 million.” Letters There followed an exchange of letters between TWRA and Mrs. Denton. The state said it would be glad to sit down and discuss the situation with her and assured her the state owns the land in question, not her. It informed her that if she proceeds with any action affecting state property, TWRA is prepared to proceed with necessary legal action. The sequence of events includes: • “On May 4, 2007, (she) posted signs on the state’s property bordering Reelfoot Lake which was part of the 6.4 acres acquired in 1930. The signs stated, “POSTED; Private Property; Hunting, fishing, trapping or trespassing for any purpose is strictly forbidden; violators will be prosecuted.’ • “These signs were, in effect, in the backyards of the Hornbeak Subdivision lot owners who had purchased the lots from the Hornbeaks based on the plat that showed that the lots abutted the state’s external boundary line. These owners, as had (Mrs. Denton) had been paying permit or lease fees for us of the 6.4 acres owned by the State of Tennessee. • “The Denton signs were removed by the subdivision owners, some of which confronted (her). (She) asserted her ownership and told the property owners that she was going to put up a wire fence blocking their access to Reelfoot Lake. • “(She) sent her agent to the home of one or more of the subdivision owners to assert her ownership of the 6.4 acres and to demand $35,000 each. • On May 30, 2007, (she) recorded in the Obion County Register’s Office documents that she titled “Real Property Licenses” purporting to be between herself and 30 owners of subdivision lots for the 6.4-acre buffer zone owned by the State of Tennessee. All of most of the Hornbeak Subdivision owners had no knowledge of the “real property licenses.” • TWRA wrote her a letter saying she should refrain from posting signs, erecting fences, interfering with access and such. • On Aug. 20, 2007, (she) posted additional signs on the 6.4 acres owned by the state. The signs denied access to the general public and threatened criminal prosecution. • On Oct. 24, 2007, (the defendants) filed suit in U.S. District Court in Jackson alleging ownership of the 6.4 acres and deprivation of their civil rights. The lawsuit was dismissed. The dismissal was appealed to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.
Published in The Messenger 12.24.08

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