(Source: AZCentral): Richard Ruelas – Sometime around 1890, a man named Jesus Martinez purchased an adobe home near the Salt River in Tempe from a man named Ramon Gonzalez, who had built the home a decade earlier. Martinez lived there and died there, and his ancestors would live and work on the property and home for the next 130 years.
But decades before Jesus Martinez bought the house, something else had happened.
In 1863, the federal government deeded certain sections of land over to the territory to Arizona. The lands weren’t handpicked; every section a surveyor assigned the number 16 would be property of Arizona.
The adobe house near the Salt River, as it happened, was in a section marked 16.
This set up a problem: Martinez thought he owned the land; the federal government said it belonged to Arizona.
But for almost a century, it wasn’t a problem. No one seemed to care. Probably because the land wasn’t very valuable.
Steve Sussex, the great-grandson of Martinez, ran a contracting business on his family’s land in the 1980s. He also used it to tinker with and store all manner of vehicles and industrial tools. The area took on the look of a salvage lot or junkyard.
The land has since become valuable. It is waterfront property, steps away from the man-made Tempe Town Lake. Sussex’s dirt lot of broken-down vehicles began to look increasingly out of place in the area.
That fight has resulted in more than a decade of complicated lawsuits, reaching up to the Arizona Supreme Court.
Now, those battles seem close to an end.
The result, simply put, is this: Tempe has won the right to kick Martinez’s descendants off the land.
Martinez’s great-grandson, Steve Sussex, had hoped for some sort of financial settlement with the city for what he figured would be in eventual ouster from the property.
What he got instead was a ruling that gave him 30 days to get his belongings off the property. After that, the land has lived in for more than a century will be property of the city.
How did this start?
The story of this property stretches back to the beginnings of Tempe as a city and Arizona as a recognized state and territory.
When Arizona was recognized as a territory in 1863, the federal government ordered it surveyed. The entire territory was divided up into 36-square-mile blocks. And each of those blocks was subdivided into 36 1-mile sections.
The federal government said that each section marked 16 and 36 be held by Arizona and sold off to benefit public schools. This is called state trust land.
Some of Hayden’s workers from Tucson followed him to the area, according to research done by Tempe historian Scott Sollliday. Among those were Ramon Gonzalez, who built the adobe home on First Street around 1880. That house is on the city’s historical register, cited as one of the oldest structures in the Phoenix metropolitan area.
It’s not clear whether either man knew that the land where the home stood was property of the territory of Arizona.
There was discussion among Arizona lawmakers about how to handle situations like this, where people settled on land that was suddenly made trust land. There was a lengthy process in place that would have given people clear title to such land, Solliday wrote. But, it appears, neither Martinez nor Gonzalez took those steps.
Martinez died in 1907. His family stayed in the house.
In 1911, a dam was built along the Salt River, providing electricity to the region, but slowing the flow of water through Tempe. The bed would eventually became dry, with only occasional flows, mainly from floods. The area wasn’t scenic; as the city developed, residents would use the dry riverbed as an unofficial dump.
In 1930, Martinez’s widow, Rosario, asked for and received a lease for the land that held the adobe house where she lived. Solliday, in his report, said that lease appeared to later be a possible purchase agreement. Either way, the deal was cancelled in 1934 for non-payment.
In 1956, the land was set to be auctioned off, according to a history of the property that was part of a state Court of Appeals ruling.
An appraiser looked at the land and figured the family was owed $1,510 for the adobe home, an outhouse and other structures on the property, the ruling says. The property was auctioned off to the owner of an earthmoving company named Ernest Mohammed. His name is stamped on a lot of sidewalks in Tempe that his company built.
But in 1971, Mohammed stopped making payments, according to the court ruling. The land reverted back to the state of Arizona.
Sussex said he started his own contracting business on the land in the 1970s. He also leased the adobe home to be used as an office by another contracting company.
The area was known for such industrial businesses. And the dry riverbed was, according to a city history, an “ugly scar” in Tempe.
Just add water
In 1988, Tempe began work on a plan to return water to the riverbed. It was the culmination of an idea first proposed by Arizona State University students in 1966.
That same year, according to records, was the first time Tempe tried to take purchase the land. The city was the highest bidder at an auction.
It also effectively showed that the land had long ago been bisected into two parts. The eastern half, the part with the adobe house, was owned by the railroad. The western half, mainly vacant aside from the scattered cars, was on state trust land.
At the city’s request, Arizona sent Sussex a letter in 1992 ordering him off its land. Sussex didn’t budge.
Tempe reached a deal with the railroad in 2002, making the city the owner of about half the property. At least on paper.
Sussex would come to claim he owned the whole thing.
Into the courtroom
In 2004, the state sent another letter to Sussex ordering him off the land. In 2005, it filed legal action against him.
That case would drag on in Maricopa County Superior Court for five years.
Sussex’s attorney, Jack Wilenchik, argued that the state had waited too long to bring its case. Had it not waited a century, he argued, his client’s family might have been able to unearth documents that would help it lay claim to the land.
But that argument failed. The court said it didn’t matter how long the state took; it was acting as directed by the Constitution.
The judge, in 2010, awarded the state title. The court also ruled that the Sussex family had been trespassers for 130 years it had been on the land. A jury awarded the state $1,500 in damages, much less than the state had sought.
Wilenchik took his appeals to the Arizona Supreme Court. It declined to hear the case.
Then, Sussex went on the offensive, trying to lay claim to the other half of his property.
He filed suit against Tempe in 2015. He told the city to sign over title to the land to him. The filing included a $5 check to cover document fees.
The Sussex family has engaged in a years-long battle over property where its ancestors settled in an adobe home more than a century ago.
In this case, Sussex’s attorney, Wilenchik, argued that Sussex owned the property through adverse possession, the legal term for being a squatter. The argument went that Sussex had been on the property for a long time and the city of Tempe did nothing to kick him off. Ergo, it was his.
A judge ruled that the adverse possession statutes don’t apply to cities.
In May 2016, the city filed action to boot Sussex from the property.
The court issued its final ruling in the case in February, giving Sussex 30 days to get out.
Sussex’s attorney, Wilenchik, might appeal. But, he said, stopping the 30-day countdown might require Sussex to put up a cash bond based on the value of the land.
The assessor values the land at $795,500.
Tempe has not said what it plans to do with the land.
But the area has moved past being a blighted, ugly scar. The Tempe Town Lake has attracted development. Along First Street and Farmer Avenue are new restaurants, condominiums and apartments. Development signs signal there are more on the way.
And any building on the Sussex property would have, from say a picture window on its north end, a clear view of the Tempe Town Lake.