Encroached: Land giveaway spurs debate

When Jeffrey and Karen Kaster bought their Belmont house 10 years ago, they didn't find out until closing that the City of Charlottesville owned a sizable chunk of the picket-fenced yard they thought they were buying.

Now the house on the corner of Belmont Avenue and Castalia Street is for sale again. To clear up the title, the Kasters want the city to transfer a 1,250-square-foot strip along Castalia to them, and they've hired former mayor and city councilor David Toscano to do the asking.

The land is valued at $3,750. The amount the city wants to charge to convey it to the Kasters? Zero.

"The city can sell that land or give it away," notes UVA law student John Schochet, who has emailed all of the city councilors to complain about the plan. "It bothers me that with the budget tight, $3,750 could buy library books, fill potholes, or pay a portion of a teacher or firefighter's salary. It's not fiscally sound to give away land."

Councilor Rob Schilling was similarly stunned at the request. "I'd love somebody to tack that onto my property," he says, pointing out that the land is the equivalent of 10 by 120 feet, or 30 by 40 feet.

Yet apparently such giveaways are common practice in a city where property lines don't always line up with street boundaries.

The Kasters bought the house at 937 Belmont Avenue for $86,500, and, according to Schilling, it's now on the market for $289,000.

"Is the city going to pitch in when somebody is going to sell a house with a $200,000 profit?" he asks. "Why give it away? They've known about it for 10 years."

Toscano doesn't think rising property values are relevant. "At what increase in property value is charging justified?" he asks. "Over what period of years?"

Councilor Meredith Richards says it's longstanding city policy to give land away if it can't be developed. "The city is not making anything on that land," she says. "Once the transfer is made and the new owners take it, the City can reassess the property and the new owner pays the property tax."

And while Schilling says the Kasters have had free use of the land for 10 years, Richards looks at it another way: "The Kasters have maintained this property for a decade... Technically, the city could be required to maintain it."

One other factor convinces Richards to support donating the land. "This transfer will not affect the price of the house, and it will not put money in the pockets of the Kasters," she explains.

She's not pooh-poohing the value of $3,750 to city coffers. "Of course the city could always use a few more dollars," she says. "But if the transfer doesn't take place, the city loses tax value."

Law student Schochet wonders why the Kasters hired an attorney to handle such a relatively small real estate transaction. "It strikes me as odd," he says.

Jeffrey Kaster referred a call from The Hook to Toscano, who says, "It's interesting to represent folks who are asking the city for something I'd have to vote on in the past. If you look at my votes, this request is consistent with the way I voted."

As for city attorney Craig Brown's recommendation that Charlottesville "quitclaim" the property at no charge, Schochet argues, "It should be a business decision, not a legal decision. I can't come up with an intelligent reason not to seek payment."

Richards points out that if the land is not transferred, realistically, the city is not going to demand that a new owner buy the strip, nor would it demand that the owner stop encroaching on city property. And as a publicly owned patch of ground, it would generate no taxes. With real estate prices spiraling upward in Belmont, the tax reassessment could turn into some real money.

"It's good for Belmont; it's good for the city," says Toscano.

City Council votes on conveying the Castalia Street right-of-way November 17.

Free land on Castalia