Most home-sellers might say that the views, breeze and seaside fresh air help coastal properties to sell themselves, but for one local vendor, his house’s biggest asset became the biggest problem too.
“I just felt trapped. It’s very stressful selling a house anyway, but this just prolonged the process even more,” Alan Luce sighed.
Just over half a year earlier, he had been struggling to sell his St Clement-based house in the midst of a fierce battle with the ‘Public of Jersey’.
For 10 years, he had resided at Roche de la Mer – a scenic home alongside the St Clement sea wall, but by late 2015, he was ready to move on.
In an advert, the property boasted its location as “quite literally on the sea wall!” The picturesque proposition was something that Mr Luce had hoped would draw the interest of potential buyers to his modern beach house, but ended up working against him.
Pictured: Mr Luce's idyllic property was "quite literally on the sea wall!" - that was part of the problem.
Shortly after advertising it in September 2015, Mr Luce received a letter from Jersey Property Holdings – the States property portfolio manager – stating that his residence had encroached on States turf, and that he should pay up for the privilege of letting the offending items – a balcony and extensions abutting the sea wall – rest in place. The alternative? Face a “complete removal” of the offending 8ft area, which extended into the property itself.
“It was a complete shock… It was a cunning, evil, deceitful thing they’d done. If they wanted that land back, they’d have to demolish the front room,” Mr Luce explained, describing the “impossible” situation.
The issue, the States said, was that the property had been constructed using the sea wall as a boundary. But the sea wall had been built in 1869 – more than 150 years ago – at a time when the Public’s land actually extended behind it, but was yet to be filled in. According to ancient laws, the Foreshore’s boundary wasn’t a solid line, but wherever the high tide would fall if there wasn’t a wall at all. “It is not a scientific measure. It was a massive grey area if the sea wall was even in the right place,” Mr Luce said.
Given its moveable nature, it was unclear where this boundary actually fell and Mr Luce was told that a survey would have to be conducted to establish how far his property crossed into the Public’s land, which they believed to be around 8ft 5ins. Moreover, Mr Luce would have to agree to cover all costs – not only the seemingly inevitable compensation owed to the Public, but their legal fees and the costs of a survey of the area by a surveyor that he wasn't allowed to choose.
In a letter to the States, Mr Luce expressed concerns over the, “…odd course of action to restrict my freedom of choice”, but no attempts to assuage his fears were forthcoming.
“It was completely bullying,” he said. “It was all, ‘You must agree, admit guilt, use our surveyor, you’ve got to pay what you need to pay. You’re a passenger in this, you can’t contest this.’”
Pictured: Roche de la Mer was just one of many properties in the area abutting the sea wall.
Throughout, it was unclear who was pulling the strings - all emails contained the caveat "with ministerial approval", and for many months it was never confirmed whether the Minister was indeed aware of the matter or even supported the move. The only explanation that was given was that it was an interim solution before politically supported policy could be introduced.
But ‘the Public’ – for whom Jersey Property Holdings were acting – had only officially acquired the land in 2015. It had previously belonged to the Crown, which had only sought reparations on very few occasions. "They acquired the land vice caché - warts and all - and I was that wart."
More frustrating for Mr Luce was that the encroaching developments were put there by a previous owner, and permitted by Planning decades earlier. “I didn’t do it. I didn’t put the house there... I’m just at the end of a chain and I had to pay the price. It wasn’t totally fair.”
But things became more complicated, and the land boundary yet more blurred upon further investigation by his legal representatives. The Queen did not appear to have owned the Foreshore in that particular zone - it was owned by the Seigneur of the Fief de Samarès. If the land owned by Roche de la Mer's previous owner extended as far as the high water mark, then the Public may have actually encroached on that land by building the sea wall. If it had been built below the high water mark, this may have encroached on land belonging to the Seigneur. But the States remained firm that it was Mr Luce should pay up.
Pictured: The offending balcony and opening in the sea wall were already there when Mr Luce bought the property in 2005, as the original advertisement image shows.
Mr Luce hit back at the States claiming that, the Public, as owners of the wall and surrounding land, hadn't suffered in any way, which the States contended, and that the 8ft 5ins land they claimed they had lost was of little significance to the Public. “What could they do? Put a deckchair there?”
In fact, it seemed the sea wall’s presence had been more of a problem for Mr Luce. During his decade-long stay, he was once flooded out and had to make an insurance claim. "You could argue the sea wall was inadequate.”
The true loss, however, was from the potential buyers and pounds swiped off the value of his property as a consequence of the ongoing dispute. “I was getting bullied left, right and centre on price… It was being used as a tool to beat the price down,” he lamented.
More worrying, however, was that he felt his keenness to sell was deliberately being used against him to secure a win for the States – one that they hoped would be worth around £56k in compensation.
“It smacked to me that [the sale] was being used as leverage. The whole leverage was, ‘you won’t be able to sell your house.’ That was the thing that is abhorrent most of all."
As Mr Luce's lawyers argued in a June 2016 letter, "One could fairly ask what is the point in providing such a response? The Public in making this claim pitches its unlimited resources against an ordinary homeowner; it intentionally blights the homeowner's prospects of selling by threatening both the landowner and the prospective purchasers; it can blithely sit back and do nothing; the only way the ordinary homeowner can force a resolution is by costly and time consuming litigation... This is not the way neighbours should behave towards each other. All the more so when one's neighbour is the Public."
Pictured: The sea wall hadn't protected the property from previous flooding, Mr Luce argued.
The pressure continued to mount as Mr Luce’s mortgage provider changed their terms to ensure that all was paid within six months due to the asset being “insecure” – something that never would have happened had the States not become involved.
While the unfortunate set of events had been foreshadowed as Mr Luce originally bought the property, he said that he never expected to be treated in such a way by the States – nor did he expect to have been caused such “extreme stress”.
Eventually, it became too much. Feeling “exhausted” from months spent worrying over the fate of the property, he decided to settle. Fortunately, this came at half the States’ original proposal, but was nonetheless a five-figure sum: £29,662.50 in compensation and £4,725 to cover the Public’s legal fees, totalling nearly £35,000.
While he could have attempted taking the Public on in the Royal Court, he feared the potentially six-figure fees, and the States' bottomless pockets. While he felt that he had a case – “at least morally” – there had been no previous similar cases to prove that he would secure success. “I was over a barrel. I thought, ‘I’m going to be caught in the vice.’ It was a given, I had to do it.”
That allowed the sale of his property to proceed, and Mr Luce to finally rid himself of the ordeal in November 2016 – although nearly £40k light of what he was due to pay on his new home, forcing him to take out a private loan.
Pictured: While Mr Luce has now sold on his property and put an end to the process, he says he's worried about the fate for other homeowners.
Looking back on the nightmare process seven months on, Mr Luce says he feels no malice, but the strain it has placed on him - still tangible in his voice today - makes him fear for the other homeowners potentially affected.
“I’m not angry, but what I think is completely wrong is that they’ve not turned around and said, ‘There’s a problem’, and been reasonable about this. It’s just tantamount to extortion. The only thing they seemed to be doing is looking at monetising low hanging fruit, the properties for sale. It begged the question, why aren’t you doing this to everybody?”
He says that he’s already aware of one elderly woman who tried to sell her house who was left “befuddled” and “terrified” after being handed a notice regarding her apparently encroaching conservatory.
The Department for Infrastructure confirmed to Express that it had already passed three settlements through the Royal Court, and that a number were currently under negotiation. But Mr Luce thinks the issue needs to be dealt with openly and transparently.
“To make this problem go away, I think they should do a moratorium, say to homeowners to pay a modest sum, get everyone to pay.”
He added: “I don’t believe for a minute the Queen gave the land to the people of Jersey for them to start screwing around with the people.”
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