A Cautionary Tale, Land Title Issues Can Delay and Even Prevent Property Sales
Pauline and Randy Diamond want to sell their family home, but Crown Lands won’t let them.
Pauline Diamond gazes out the window of the Catalina home where she lived for almost 40 years, rocking in a chair, remembering the past.
Her children built forts in the nearby forest, went tobogganing down the rolling hills and played near the Atlantic Ocean.
Now it’s time for Pauline and her husband, Randy, to move on.
But they can’t.
“I don’t know. I really don’t know what’s going to happen,” Pauline said, shaking her head.
About two years ago, the Diamonds decided to sell the home where they’ve lived since the early 1980s and move into an accessible apartment. They secured a buyer — family friends looking to move home — and proceeded with a quieting of titles, in order to clear any potential disputes over the land.
That’s when the trouble started.
The provincial government claims that, according to its records, Pauline and Randy’s home is sitting on Crown land.
According to the government, the lawn where their kids played, the garden where Randy grew vegetables and the house where Pauline raised a family never belonged to the Diamonds.
“We don’t know where we stand or where to go to next,” Pauline said.
Short on time
In 1981, Pauline’s father bought the parcel of land, splitting it among his three children. Pauline and Randy finished building a home on the land in 1984. The family has the deed for the land, but that isn’t enough.
The Diamonds say no one from the provincial government has ever contacted them to tell them there was a problem. They’ve been paying property taxes to the Town of Catalina — and provided those records to CBC News.
The Diamonds plan to fight the case in court — which will cost thousands of dollars as well as another, more precious resource: time.
“I was diagnosed there three years ago, three and a half years ago — lung and bone cancer,” said Pauline, who turned 67 this year.
She was given three to five years to live, and that was more than three years ago. They’re set to go to court in September 2023.
“I wants it straightened out. I wants everything straightened out,” Pauline said through tears. “It’s time for it to be over with. It’s a long time trying to get it straightened out.”
The Diamonds have moved out of the home because Pauline could no longer walk up and down the stairs. Eventually, with the money from selling the home, they plan to buy a new vehicle to take Pauline to her oncology appointments.
‘This is our home’
Penny Kennedy, one of Pauline’s daughters, remembers a childhood in 1980s Catalina of exploration, nature and family. She’s watched the area change over the decades, as roads moved, the landscape shifted, people left and others returned.
“The one thing remains the same is that this is our home,” she said. “The government now is trying to say that it’s not. It’s their land.”
Kennedy has been trying to help her parents navigate the situation, but there isn’t much she can do.
“My only wish is that it gets settled and once it gets settled, they can have a better life — for however long that is,” she said.
A spokesperson for Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture Minister Derrick Bragg turned down multiple requests for an interview, and said the department couldn’t comment on specific cases before the courts.
In a statement provided to CBC News, the department said its Crown Lands division recognizes the process can be frustrating but it has a legal duty to manage and allocate provincial Crown lands in “a responsible manner.”
“When any petitioner applies for a certificate of title under the Quieting of Titles Act, Crown Lands division has a legal obligation to review the application and to contest the claim if any of the subject land is considered to be Crown land. The review of such a matter would follow the same process as hundreds of other applications filed or served on the Crown under the Quieting of Titles Act,” reads the statement.
“Crown Lands division does not hold up the sale of land; the decision whether to apply to have land investigated through the courts under the Quieting of Titles Act is between an individual and their private lawyer.”
Two years ago, when Randy and Pauline put their home on the market, the Hart family thought they had found their dream home. Jeremy, Kayla and their daughter Sophia Stagg, 10, were ready to fill the Diamonds’ house with their own memories.
They had already sold their previous home when they found out they wouldn’t be able to buy Randy and Pauline’s home.
For about 16 hours, the Harts thought they were homeless.
“We sat down with Randy and Pauline and told them the situation and, I mean, they were you know, apologetic,” Jeremy said. “You know, they were as good as gold.”
The Diamonds let the Hart family move into the home, believing they would be the owners within months. But that’s not what happened.
“We don’t know if this is ever gonna be resolved,” Jeremy said.
The problem is bigger than the Diamonds.
The Crown Lands map on the provincial government’s website shows thousands of people across Newfoundland and Labrador — including in St. John’s — are potentially living on Crown land.
Squatter’s rights in Newfoundland and Labrador were abolished in 1976, and proving possession of Crown land after that year becomes more difficult.
Greg French, a real estate lawyer in Clarenville, said the problem is partially paperwork-related.
“People understand themselves to be the owners of land, and they occupy their land in good faith and pay their taxes and live on it and occupy it. But it’s not documented properly,” he said.
French is representing the Diamonds, though he says he can’t comment on their case because it’s before the courts. He said he’s currently working on a dozen similar cases.
Earlier this year, he co-authored on a report on behalf of the Canadian Bar Association that calls on the government to reinstate squatter’s rights for certain periods of land occupation.
A centuries-old issue
Craig Pardy, PC MHA for the district of Bonavista, said the problem is significant in his district, where communities like Trinity have been settled for centuries.
‘There’s a lot of people that have been residing on that land for maybe hundreds of years, families that don’t have title and will have trouble accessing clear title to the land,” he said.
Pardy has brought petitions to the House of Assembly, asking the provincial government to revisit the law. In 2015, the provincial government commissioned a review of the Lands Act, but the review didn’t recommend changes to squatter’s rights rules.
Nearly a year away from their court date, the Diamonds don’t know what’s in store for them. Pauline says the uncertainty has been stressful — especially considering her illness. She said she wants the Harts to be able to build a life in the home, like her own family did.
“It’s good memories here. Really good memories,” she said.