Murray residents have been paying taxes for more than a century on land that, it turns out, isn’t theirs.
Federal officials told skeptical residents Wednesday that much of their back yards actually belongs to the U.S. government - and always has.
The news leaves about one-quarter of the town’s 80 residents in the peculiar position of now having to buy land they always thought they owned.
“It was out of the blue,” said retiree Mike Condon, 60. “When they started putting the (survey) stakes in the ground, we got a little nervous.”
“I think it’s kind of rotten. We’ve been paying taxes on it,” said Murray resident Walt Almquist, 87, clutching tax documents dating to 1947.
Under the glare of neon beer lights at the Spragpole bar - which also serves as post office and home to the world’s largest carved wooden chain - federal officials laid out the dilemma Wednesday afternoon.
According to the Bureau of Land Management’s recent survey, Almquist’s septic tank, satellite dish, wood pile - even a fake gold mine he built to show to tourists - are all sitting on federal land. He’s always thought the land was part of his back yard.
“I’ve got part of my garden on it,” Almquist said.
He’s not alone. Unsuspecting homeowners have been mowing grass and planting flowers on federal land here for decades. The surveyors discovered this spring that sheds, a garage, a cabin, a house - even the city’s water system - are built on federal land.
The fault, BLM officials say, lies largely with a map published in the long-defunct Murray Sun newspaper in 1894.
The map, which shows blocks and numbered lots, has been the basis for deeds and land transactions in Murray for generations.
Strangely, the map contains a small note saying its scale only applies to east and west dimensions, not north and south. So it was never clear how deep the lots on the north side of Main Street were. “Whoever laid out the Murray Sun map totally disregarded where the federal land was,” said the BLM’s Scott Forssell.
Some people thought their lots went back 130 feet. Others said 150 feet, or 160, or 200.
In reality, the lots are only 110 feet deep, according to the BLM survey. Everything beyond that is federal land.
“This is mining country. People built houses where they thought they owned the land,” said Forssell. “BLM suspects that there are other situations like this in the Silver Valley.” He declined to specify where.
Federal law prohibits the BLM from simply giving the land to the homeowners, Forssell said. Normally, the agency must get fair-market price.
In this case, however, BLM officials are willing to sell the contested land - 50 feet by 1,000 feet - to the adjacent homeowners for $2.
Adding the cost of a private surveyor to divide the land among the neighbors, Forssell predicted each homeowner would have to pay $80 to $200.
“We’re not wearing the black hats here. We’re trying really hard to wear the white ones,” Forssell said.
Still, many residents are irked.
“I think it’s wrong,” said Lloyd Roath, owner of the Spragpole bar. “I don’t see why we should pay.”
Whether the residents can get any refund on their taxes remains unclear. That issue, Forssell said, is best taken up with Shoshone County, which collects taxes in Murray.
“I figure I’ve got 95 years of taxes - on a quarter of my property - coming back to me,” said Condon. “I don’t know how much that means, but with interest, I should get a nice check.”
County Assessor Duane Little declined to speculate on the homeowners’ odds of collecting back taxes.
“That’s really up to the commissioners,” he said Wednesday night.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo