Judge’s order halts sale of Ella Smither property to City of Huntsville
By Walker County News Today staff
A temporary restraining order has halted the Walker County Hospital District’s sale of the former Ella Smither Geriatric Center site to the city of Huntsville.
The city appears to be planning to construct a public safety facility on a 6.34-acre tract on the property located at 11th Street at Avenue O. Huntsville City Council has committed to signing an earnest money contract with the Hospital District for $2.25 million.
But Ella Smither’s heirs, Pamela Smither Covington, Miles Allan “Bob” Smither and Murray Smither, claim a roughly 1-acre parcel within that 6.34-acre site belongs to them and that “The Hospital District has intentionally misappropriated the Plantiffs’ Property for public use and without just compensation, which constitutes an inverse condemnation.”
On Tuesday, March 6, District Judge Hal Ridley, 278th Judicial District in Walker County, signed the temporary restraining order enjoining the sale of the property. A hearing is scheduled later this month.
Why do these plaintiffs believe they own the Smither tract?
On April 28, 1927 Ella Smither conveyed the property, at the corner of 11th Street and Avenue O, to Huntsville Memorial Hospital to be used by the hospital for hospital purposes only. A restrictive covenant in this general warranty deed stipulates that the land reverts back to Smither or her heirs at any time it ceased to be used by the hospital for hospital purposes.
The hospital constructed on this site closed in 1981 when the new facility opened in its present location on I-45. The building was then used for the Ella Smither Geriatric Center, which has now also been abandoned for several years.
“The language in the deed is unequivocal,” the petition says. “Title to the property reverts to the heirs of the grantor, the plaintiffs herein, upon the abandonment of the property to be used exclusively for hospital purposes.”
The petition argues the Hospital District “unquestionably abandoned the use of the property for hospital purposes by entering into a contract to sell the property to the City of Huntsville for non-hospital purposes.”
What will this mean for the City of Huntsville?
The city’s plans to purchase the Ella Smither property are on hold until the judge rules on the plaintiffs’ petition. Lanny Ray, local attorney for the plaintiffs, said his clients’ ultimate goal is not to thwart the city’s purchase of the site.
“We just want our fair share,” he said.
Didn’t the Hospital District research deed records before attempting to sell the property?
“We can assure you we did all our paperwork before we sold the land,” Hospital Board Chairwoman Anne Woodard told Walker County News Today on Thursday after the Board had been served with the temporary restraining order.
Ella Smither died in 1935 at about age 89 without a husband or children. A niece had taken her in before her death, and Ella Smither bequeathed her assets at that time to this caretaker niece.
Joe Henderson, attorney for the Hospital District, told WCNT that the Hospital District claims a 1947 quitclaim deed, signed by the children of this niece, gives the Hospital District ownership of the 1-acre tract at 11th and Avenue O.
“We’ve tried to be as transparent as possible,” Henderson said.
But Ray argues that the quitclaim deed has no bearing on the plaintiffs’ claim and does not supersede the 1927 general warranty deed.
A quitclaim deed contains no warranties of title and operates simply to convey a person’s interest, if any, to another. A quitclaim deed does not specify that the person signing the document actually has title to the property.
Ella Smither didn’t own the property occupied at the time of her death by the old hospital. The property at that time belonged to Huntsville Memorial Hospital, Ray said.
“The deed says the property reverts back to Ella Smither or her heirs when it is no longer being used for hospital purposes,” he said. “The Hospital District wishes it didn’t say that, but it does.”