This dispute involved the subsurface rights to a property in Rush Township, Centre County, Pennsylvania. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania was asked to determine whether a 1935 tax sale resulted in the transferring of only the surface rights to the property. The Supreme Court agreed with the Superior Court and upheld the “title wash” tax sale principle, meaning the tax sale resulted in the transfer of the entire property, not merely the surface rights.
Herder Spring Hunting Club (“Herding Spring”) filed an action to quiet title against Harry and Anna Keller (the “Kellers”) in the Centre County Court of Common Pleas in 2008. At issue was a piece of property called the Eleanor Siddons Warrant, which Herder Spring claimed was assessed as “unseated” in 1935 through a tax sale to a predecessor in interest to Herder Spring. Herder Spring further claimed that this sale voided an 1899 reservation of subsurface rights to the property in a severance deed made by the Kellers’ ancestors. According to Herder Spring, those ancestors failed to notify the county assessors of their interest in the subsurface rights, as required by an 1806 law.
The trial court held that the reservation of subsurface rights was properly recorded in the severance deed, giving the Kellers an interest in fee simple to those rights. Herder Spring appealed, and the Superior Court reversed. The Superior Court relied on the notice provision of the 1806 law, which required holders of unseated property to notify the county commissioners or the board of assessment of changes made to unseated property that would affect the tax assessment. Because the Kellers’ ancestors failed to do so, both the surface and subsurface portions of the property were valued and assessed at the time of the tax sale, which merged the surface and subsurface rights to the property. Therefore, Herder Spring’s predecessor in interest received both by the 1935 tax sale.
The Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court’s decision. The court noted that neither the Kellers’ ancestors nor the purchaser of the surface rights in 1899 reported the transfer, even though a severance deed was executed. Therefore, the Centre County tax assessors would have necessarily assessed the entire property prior to the tax sale in 1935. If proper notice had been given, as required by the 1806 law, the county could have assessed the land according to the severance deed. That was not the case, and the property was transferred in its entirety via the tax sale.
Click here to read: Herder Spring Hunting Club v. Keller, No. 5 MAP 2015 (Pa. July 19, 2016).
Bob Turchick, Law Clerk
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