Mistake in 1990s put part of home on county land

Houghtaling, Vergennes Township
The Houghtaling home in Vergennes Township. (October 2017)

VERGENNES TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — The home near Lowell with a gorgeous view of the Flat River was a wedding gift some 20 years ago. Today, it’s the source of frustration for the owner and a problem for Kent County officials.

“Do you continue paying your mortgage payment?” owner Lori Houghtaling wondered. “Do you continue investing in a house that you know you’ll never be able to sell?”

The problem is that the house is built partly on Kent County property. The most recent survey shows the property line carving through several rooms, putting about a quarter of the home on the county’s side of the property line.

Houghtaling and her husband were given the land as a wedding present from her father in the mid-1990s.

A property survey at the time seems to show the correct boundaries. But for some reason, somebody staked out the property line along the nearby bluff overlooking the river. Houghtaling recalls “flags along the back edge.” Those flags ignored the sharp jog inland from the bluff the actual property line makes.

“So we went directly from where the flags were and mapped it back 50 feet” to comply with zoning rules when positioning the house on the land, Houghtaling said.

Two decades later, it’s hard to find out how those flags were incorrectly placed. Memories have faded. People have left office or died. And Vergennes Township records for the house have their own problems. For example, the building permit for the home has the wrong address. A drawing of the house is hand-sketched on the neighboring property. There is nothing in the file that hints at what led to the mistake.

Houghtaling recalls it might have been the township building inspector at that time, now deceased, who discovered the house was in the wrong place — but not until construction was nearly done. She remembers some official at the time telling her the problem could be solved by going back to the original seller for a new deed that includes the part of the house that’s over the line and the backyard. They did. But it was strange and pointless advice: A new deed from that seller didn’t matter because she no longer owned the property; the county did.

Still it was good enough, according to Houghtaling, for the township to give the Houghtalings an occupancy permit that let them move in and live for two decades thinking the problem had been solved.

Then two years ago, they hired a company to build a swimming pool in what they thought was their backyard.

“That’s when they went and pulled a permit and we found out that actually this is not our land,” Houghtaling said.

The Houghtalings started talking to Kent County park and recreation officials who are in charge of the wooded property that surrounds the Fallasburg Dam. They wondered if a swap would be possible. The county came back with a solid no. However, it did give them a letter giving them permission to continue to use the property under part of their house and backyard as they had for the last two decades. But if they were going to remodel someday, they would have to get rid of the part of the house that’s over the line.

The Houghtalings remained worried. They doubt that they could sell the house if they wanted to some day because no bank would give a buyer a mortgage for a house partly built on someone else’s property. The letter from the county also said circumstances might change that could affect permission to continue living there.

“I’m frustrated,” Houghtaling told Target 8, “which is why I called you because I would love to have it resolved.”

Target 8 investigators began emailing county officials with questions and searched county records. That stirred discussions among county officials, who said they originally rejected the proposed land swap because they don’t want to handle such requests from other people looking to swap land with the county.

But now they’ve changed their minds in the Houghtaling case.

“We’d already started doing some of the legwork as a result of the requests you were making and we took a look and said, OK, maybe for a few feet we can do this,” Kent County Communication Director Lisa LaPlante said.

She said the county is now negotiating with the Houghtalings. It looks like the county will keep what became the Houghtalings’ backyard, but give them title to the land under their house. The family will pay the cost of making the changes.

“We don’t want to see her have to demo a room in order to comply with the property lines,” LaPlante said.