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For sale: Mowing strip

Tue., Aug. 7, 2007

Looking for some prime real estate? Don’t call Deborah Firkins.

On the other hand, if you want to buy a sliver of someone’s yard, she may have just the thing.

A public works engineer for Spokane County, Firkins’ job is to try to unload scraps of land the county has acquired in tax foreclosures. Many of the properties that wind up in Firkins’ portfolio are worthless at best.

Bargain hunters snap up the good stuff at sheriff’s foreclosure auctions before it can fall into county ownership.

Firkins has been working nearly five years to clear up a backlog of properties no one wanted at sheriff’s auctions, and the 30 or so that are left tend to be unbuildable hillsides, swamps, ditches, landlocked pieces of abandoned alleys, little chunks of people’s yards and fence lines – lots of fence lines.

Even the people whose property is affected often have little incentive to buy.

Who would want to relieve the county of responsibility for a crumbling, 125-foot-long retaining wall? Or to pay taxes on land they’re already using tax-free?

Take, for example, Deer Park residents Mark and Diane Lyons. A 50-foot-long strip of their backyard is available for $300, but it’s only 8 to 10 feet wide.

“I’m not going to buy it,” Diane Lyons said. “That would be silly. I’m not going to give them taxes for that little piece.”

Until a “for sale” sign went up about six months ago, the couple hadn’t realized they didn’t own first base on their children’s informal baseball field.

Diane Lyons said she got a call from her startled 16-year-old daughter, who was the first to spot the sign. Still, Lyons said she’s not worried because first base is about all that will fit on the strip of land.

“If somebody wants to buy it and pay the taxes, let them,” Lyons said. “I’ll slap up a fence and it can go to weeds, and then I’ll turn them in when they get noxious weeds.”

The problem has its roots in a 1918 plat in which the strip apparently was carved out of one lot to provide road access to another. County officials don’t know exactly what happened, but the strip was left out when the lots were combined in 1959.

Since then, the strip has twice been lost to foreclosure.

Land-use regulations may prevent use of such tiny scraps unless they can be combined with adjacent property, but they have potential for mischief. County Treasurer Skip Chilberg said his counterparts around the state “have all kinds of horror stories” about buyers who attempted to extort higher prices from neighbors who didn’t like the counties’ price.

A couple of years ago, Firkins said, a contractor bought part of a vacated piece of land and caused a neighborhood uproar by storing equipment on it before making a deal with residents.

“It was bad,” she said.

County commissioners have instructed Firkins to use assessed value or unpaid taxes, whichever is greater, as a minimum price. No attempt is made to collect penalties, interest or fees that taxpayers owed.

Firkins said she goes out of her way to notify adjacent property owners. A couple of years ago she pulled a 264-square-foot triangle of land from an auction because she feared a sale would land-lock the home of a Spokane Valley couple who said they couldn’t afford to buy the land.

“That one scares me, and I’m hoping that they come and buy it,” Firkins said. “I’m not a mean person.”

Efforts to reach the couple for comment were unsuccessful.

That parcel and many, if not most, of the others in Friday’s auction apparently wound up in foreclosure because they were detached from larger properties. Original owners may have forgotten about them, and subsequent owners who didn’t know about them may have dismissed tax bills as a mistake.

County records suggest the Spokane Valley triangle was acquired to provide access to one of three lots carved from a larger lot.

In other cases, Firkins said, easements have been granted on condition that the beneficiary become responsible for property taxes.

Assessor Ralph Baker said developers sometimes separate out electric line corridors and other undesirable land and quit paying the taxes after their projects are finished.

An 1890 state law requires assessors to create separate tax parcels for portions of people’s land, even though the portions can’t legally be used by themselves.

If taxes aren’t paid on one of the portions, counties are allowed to foreclose only on the delinquent portion – not the whole parcel – even though that creates a lot that land-use regulations otherwise would prohibit.

Although most of the listings in Friday’s auction are dogs, Firkins said a 6,350-square-foot parcel in an industrial zone near Queen Avenue and Ferrall Street may be a bargain at $14,290 plus an unpaid utility bill. However, it’s up to buyers to make sure their purchases don’t bite, Firkins warned.

She can’t be accused of overselling even the crown jewel in the sale: a house at 4917 N. Napa St.

The house wound up in foreclosure when its owner failed to pay the bill when the city of Spokane declared a nuisance and cleaned up mounds of garbage inside and outside the structure.

Firkins gave it another cleaning, for suspected methamphetamine contamination, when it came to her in 2005. Even though the house got a clean bill of health, no one wanted to pay its $51,800 assessed value at a previous auction.

After that, Firkins requested a reappraisal that brought the assessment down to $29,100. But maintenance costs keep rising.

“I’m hoping and praying that I can get rid of this house,” Firkins said. “I hate that house.”

The auction will be at 10 a.m. in the county commissioners’ hearing room in the Public Works Building at 1026 W. Broadway, just east of the courthouse.

For more information, call Firkins at (509) 477-5669 or click on the “Surplus Properties” link at:

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