CHAMPAIGN COUNTY, Ill. (WCIA) — Changes are coming to notify neighbors before a company, like Nasty Joe’s, snatches up part of someone’s backyard without anyone knowing about it.
For months, we’ve been investigating odd-shaped parcels of land no one owns. Right now, there is no legal requirement for anyone to be told if a parcel next to them is up for grabs. But there could soon be.
After Nasty Joe’s shook up a Champaign neighborhood by buying two drainage ponds, and surprised an Urbana woman by poaching part of her backyard, we started looking for other properties that could suffer the same fate. For a while, we were the only ones telling neighbors this could happen. But now, after our investigation, your elected officials are also working to make sure you don’t get blindsided.
Two drainage ponds, a strip of land in a backyard, a fence that divides several properties, and a thin piece that runs the length of a whole street. Those properties all have the same things in common: No one was paying taxes on them, so they were up for auction.
And none of the neighbors knew about it, until either Nasty Joe’s told them they bought the land, or we knocked on their doors.
“I heard by accident,” Debby Borg told us in June 2017, when she heard about her neighborhood’s ponds.
“I found out from a letter in the mail that someone bought part of my backyard,” Kim Harden told us in December 2017.
“I had no idea until you informed me,” Brian Moore told us the next day, when we discovered Nasty Joe’s bought his fence.
“I’m totally shocked. I had no idea whatsoever,” Donna Mendoza told us last week, when we told her no one on her street owned the rear part of their backyards.
As we’ve reported before, Nasty Joe’s owns the ponds, and the backyard strip. Company representative Brian Nastruz has told the affected homeowners to pay him cash, or face consequences.
“He’s basically threatening all of us with trespassing on his property,” Oscar Gamble told us in June 2017.
“I feel like he’s just out to hurt people,” said Harden.
When we sat down with Nastruz in January, he said homeowners ought to know where their property lines are, and that paying taxes on whatever land they use is their responsibility.
“When it happens to you, it’s too late to come back and say, ‘well it wasn’t my fault’,” Nasturz said on January 17th, “Because you were notified, or someone in your association was notified, that this was going to happen.”
But for months, we’ve been sounding an alarm, because neighboring homeowners are not being told. Here’s why:
If no one pays taxes on a parcel, a trustee takes possession of it and auctions it off. The law firm Joseph E. Meyer and Associates handles this process for about 100 counties in Illinois. They sometimes send out marketing cards to try to find buyers, but they’re not required to.
We asked whether they think they should do more to tell neighbors. The president wouldn’t answer that question. Instead, he gave us a statement.
Part of it says “The problems with the properties in question existed long before our company or the county became involved. We will continue to give Champaign county and all our clients the high level of professionalism they have grown accustomed to. This includes changing policies and procedures as we deem necessary.”
With the trustee seemingly unwilling to do more to tell neighbors about parcels tied up in tax sales, elected officials have taken the matter up.
“Never in a million years did I think this would be possible, let alone, having to file a bill to respond to it,” State Sen. Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet) told us in February.
A month ago, Rose introduced legislation that would require neighbors of drainage ponds to be notified if that land gets auctioned off, but he didn’t know about the other parcels we found until WCIA told him. Since then, he’s amended his bill to include berms or sound barriers serving as common areas, which would describe these problematic pieces of property.
So why do they even exist?
Champaign County Supervisor of Assessments Paula Bates says it depends on how the subdivision was developed.
“Sometimes there’s a piece that’s left over,” says Bates, “And so we have to assign it a PIN number. Sometimes the subdivision doesn’t use up all of the acreage.”
An unowned strip of land in Rantoul runs through several backyards, fences, and even right through the middle of sheds. It’s been in tax auctions for years and could have been bought by Nasty Joe’s, and of course, no one on the street was told about it. After we informed the homeowners, the county, and the village a few days ago, they say they’re working together to buy the parcel before it ends up in the wrong hands.
Whether or not Rose’s legislation passes, there is another effort to better inform neighbors about this. The Champaign County GIS Consortium is working on a program that would let users easily find and identify small parcels.
That feature isn’t live yet, but you can still view their maps to see where your property lines are and who owns property next to yours.
For more information, click here.