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The David Smith Story

 David Smith owns a 250-acre plot of land in Florida's Brevard County but the state wants to take it away without compensating him because it claims it made a mistake when it sold the property more than 90 years ago.

In the 19th century, the federal government granted about 20 million acres of land to Florida with the expectation that the state would sell the land to private owners. By the early 20th century, the state had sold more than 19 million acres of this land, including what was later to become Smith's property. The state kept control of rivers, lakes and the immediate surrounding area and sold the adjacent land to private owners.

Until the 1970s, the state did not claim ownership of any land it thought it had wrongly deeded to private owners. Even in cases where the state improperly sold land, the Florida courts always ruled for private owners. A basic principle of property rights law holds that once someone is deeded a piece of property, the seller can not later reclaim the land arguing they made a mistake in selling it.

But starting in the 1970s, the Florida Department of Natural Resources began demanding the return of millions of acres of private land claiming that the state wrongly sold land too close to state-owned waters. After initially rejecting the state's claims, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that the state could assert ownership if it could show that the lands were close enough to a state-owned river or lake.

For years, David Smith used his land, which is next to a lake, to graze cattle and grow rye and oats. Then in 1996, the state of Florida filed suit to gain control of Smith's property. Even though he and his predecessors had possessed, used and paid taxes on the property for more than 50 years, the state wanted to take it without compensation because government officials allegedly made a mistake selling it in 1906. In addition, the state is claiming that Smith illegally built a series of dikes on the land in the 1970s even though the state approved of their construction at the time. Although state courts have issued some rulings favorable to Smith, the case is still ongoing and he could still lose his land.

Smith is not the only one in trouble. The state is attempting to take as much as 3 million acres of land from as many as 140,000 private owners.
Source: Florida Legal Foundation