(Source: AZCentral): Richard Ruelas – The Arizona Supreme Court on Thursday declined to hear the case of a Tempe man who is fighting with the city over rights to land he claims has been in his family for more than a century. Steve Sussex had filed suit against the city claiming he gained title to the land, located near the city’s bustling downtown, through adverse possession, the legal term for “squatters’ rights.”
Sussex argued he had openly made use of the land for years — he filled it with junked vehicles, boats and industrial debris — and the city didn’t take any steps to remove him, legally giving up its title.
The Supreme Court’s decision to not take the case means the lower courts’ rulings stand. Those essentially said Sussex had no case and that adverse possession statutes do not apply to governments.
A spokesperson for Tempe said the city declined to comment on the court ruling. The city has already filed an action to eject Sussex from the land. So far, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge has ruled Tempe has that right.
Sussex’s attorney, Jack Wilenchik, said Sussex will still press on the issue of the land’s ownership. Wilenchik has argued in the still-pending Superior Court action that Tempe acquired the land illegally.
With that title in question, Wilenchik wrote in an email, “the City has no more right to evict him than you or I.”
Tempe has filed with the court proposed language for a judicial order, a copy of which Wilenchik shared with The Republic. Tempe’s suggestion is that the court order Sussex off his property within 30 days of filing the order and that he be ordered not to damage the historic adobe house.
On the eastern end of the parcel are the light-rail tracks, allowing thousands of commuters on the passing train a moving tour of the land.
Just north of the property is the city park that leads to Tempe Town Lake. Across the street, on the south end, sits Culinary Dropout, a large restaurant opened by eatery impresario Sam Fox. It has valet parking and a line on the weekends and is an indicator of the growing development of the area, brought on, in part, by the proximity to the man-made lake.
Decades-long land battle
Tempe has been angling for the land for decades, dating back to when the area around it was used as an unofficial dumping ground.
Starting in the 1990s, Tempe refashioned its downtown street, Mill Avenue, into a district filled with restaurants, bars and nightclubs. In 1997, the city turned the portion of the normally-dry Salt River bed into the urban lake. The city claims it is the second-most visited spot in Arizona, after the Grand Canyon.
Apparently unbeknownst to his ancestors, the land they lived on traded hands. It was deeded by the federal government to the Territory of Arizona in trust. Decades later, a railroad acquired a portion of the land from the state. A more-recent series of transactions saw the city buy the portion that the railroad had owned
It is that transaction that Sussex’s attorney, Wilenchik, claims is illegal. He said the land in question was trust land and should have been sold at auction.
Thursday’s ruling marked the second time the Arizona Supreme Court declined to get involved in the Sussex case. It also declined the case in 2014 when the state of Arizona moved to evict Sussex from its portion of the land.
In a previous interview, during a walking tour of the land, Sussex said he figured he couldn’t hold onto the land forever. But said he didn’t want to be left with nothing after having his family live on the land for so long.
”I just want to be treated fair and I’ll be happy,” Sussex said. “But until then I’ll bitch until the day I die. That’s the way it works.”