by Walker County News Today staff
The Walker County Hospital District may have to wait another month before it can go forward with the sale of the former Ella Smither Geriatric site to the City of Huntsville.
Walker County District Judge Hal Ridley last week extended a temporary restraining order requested March 6 by Ella Smither’s heirs, who claim they own a .93-acre parcel included in the 6.34 acres at Avenue O and 11th Street. The WCHD intends to sell the property to the City for $2.5 million. The City has indicated it plans to build a combination police/fire station at the site.
Ridley also ordered that the WCHD and Huntsville Memorial Hospital could proceed with the sale if they deposited $350,000 in escrow pending court-ordered resolution of the dispute.
Defendants filed a counterpetition Friday, March 23, but they gave inadequate notice to have the matter heard at the scheduled hearing Monday, March 26. A hearing is scheduled April 23 in Walker County District Court, which means the temporary restraining order will have to be extended once more before that hearing.
Why should taxpayers care about this dispute?
City and WCHD taxpayers have $2.5 million committed in this land deal, which plaintiff landowners say the WCHD and HMH mishandled.
If the judge decides Ella Smither’s heirs rightfully own the land, it would mean the WCHD attempted to sell the plaintiffs’ property without notifying the rightful landowners and without offering them the fair market price for the land.
If the judge rules in favor of the defendants, they will be able to proceed with the sale of the land.
In court last week, defendants argued that plaintiffs were needlessly postponing a land sale that was good for the community. Plaintiffs agreed the land sale could go through if the defendants put aside $350,000 — the estimated value of the disputed parcel — in escrow for them. The judge agreed.
What are the WCHD and the Ella Smither heirs arguing about?
Ella Smither’s heirs argue a .93-acre parcel in the 6.34-acre property — the previous site of the “old hospital” and later the Ella Smither Geriatrc Center — reverted back to them when the land was no longer being used for hospital purposes. Plaintiffs site the 1927 warranty deed in which Ella Smither donated the land to Huntsville Memorial Hospital with the reverter clause.
Ella Smither, who died in 1935, later bequeathed her assets to a niece who had taken her in, and the niece’s heirs signed a quitclaim deed in 1947 that released any claim to the hospital property. The quitclaim deed, however, did not establish their ownership of the Ella Smither property originally donated with the reverter clause to Huntsville Memorial Hospital.
The plaintiffs argue the 1947 quitclaim deed does not supercede the 1927 warranty deed, in part because Ella Smither did not own the hospital property at the time of her bequeath to her niece.