by Max Brantley
The rumor mill is buzzing that the new Two Rivers Bridge for pedestrians and bikers might land on property the county and city don't own.
The city and county say that's not so. But local businessmen, John Ryles and Stephen Whitwell, claim otherwise. Public officials say one has even been heard suggesting he might have the right to charge a toll for use of his property. I've reached Ryles. He'll only say, "It's premature to comment." Naturally, if he has a claim, he undoubtedly has a price he'd accept to clear matters up short of building a toll plaza.
A corporate entity in which the men have an interest (they're also partners in Whitwell and Ryles Real Estate Investments), has been paying property taxes on the land. According to the assessor, they own dozens of parcels in Pulaski County, some purchased at state delinquent tax sales. The parcel in question is said to be a small portion of the roughly 488 acres on what used to be known as Sullivan Island. The city of Little Rock acquired the land through condemnation in the 1970s and won a Supreme Court case on it in 1976.
The county, which built the $5.3 million bridge, said it had to certify the bridge was on public land to qualify for federal assistance. Sherman Smith, the public works director, said the city of Little Rock said, "Yes, we own the land clear and free." The bridge spans the Little Maumelle River to link a riverside trail with Two Rivers Park. The eastern half, where the bridge lands, is on city park property and the western half on county land.
Little Rock City Attorney Tom Carpenter said the city was aware of a claim to ownership of land on which the bridge rests. He said it had arisen periodically for a number of years. But he said he was confident about the city's ownership. It's been used as a park for more than 30 years, he said, and no claim was made during the two years when the bridge was under construction. "Merely paying property taxes doesn't give title to property," Carpenter said. "We think we have title by Supreme Court judgment, if not by adverse possession. It's an untimely claim."
County assessor records show the land in question — 1.77 acres — was sold at a tax sale in 2004 and the tax bills went to Michael Wilkins, in care of Moore-Broadway LLC, a real estate venture for which Ryles' partner Stephen Whitwell is registered agent. The assessor records show Wilkins acquired the land at a tax sale, deeded it to Moore-Broadway, then had it deeded back.
How could it have been delinquent if it was city land, which isn't subject to property taxes? The assessor's office speculates that the court condemnation in 1976 never was recorded with the county clerk. But if it was later sold without challenge or redemption, the new owner might have a claim, potentially against the agency — the assessor's office — that certified the land was available for sale. The land, because it's subject to flooding is valued at less than $10,000 per acre, an assessor's employee said (but the office's appraisal puts it at $30,000 and one of the series of deed transfers claimed a $100,000 sales price paid by Moore-Broadway to Wilkins, then ZERO on a transfer back to Wilkins). The tax bill annually is $172.
LINK CORRECTED: Here's a series of 2010 correspondence on the disputed land, which Ryles and Whitwell say they bought from Wilkins.