Land forfeitures conform… after 30 years

WINNSBORO – Fairfield County has finally developed a formal process to dispose of land and property forfeited to the county, ending more than 30 years of non-compliance with state law.

On Nov. 11, the Fairfield County Forfeited Land Commission held its inaugural meeting, where it appointed officers and adopted policies and procedures. “Its primary function is to effect the sale of lands forfeited in pursuance of the South Carolina Code of Laws,” according to the Fairfield County website.

“The Delinquent Tax Collector at the tax sale submits the bid on behalf of the Forfeited Land Commission equal to the amount of all unpaid taxes, assessments, penalties and cost,” the site states.

County Administrator Jason Taylor said he was unaware a forfeited land commission had never been established. He estimated that the county has a backlog of 120 undisposed properties, and that none have sold since 2008.

“They go back a long, long time. Before that, I do think if somebody researched and decided they wanted a piece of property, they’d inquire about it and possibly purchase it,” he said.

Taylor noted the county uncovered forfeited lands in droves while working on the Zion Hill renovation project. He couldn’t say why the issue hasn’t arisen sooner, but surmised Fairfield County’s comparatively low property values may be one reason.

“The goal is to get these properties out of unproductive status and into a productive status,” Taylor said.

At the Nov. 11 commission meeting, county attorney Tommy Morgan said in many cases, the parcels are small and virtually unnoticeable, but remain in the county’s possession, nonetheless.

“Some properties that are in the commission’s name already, for example, are nothing more than a driveway,” Morgan said.

Miriam Woodward, the county’s tax collector, said there’s never been any direction from past county councils to address forfeited lands. She said it wasn’t until recently that the forfeited lands were deeded.

“Now we’re just playing catch-up in getting the properties out there and available to the public,” Woodard said. “I just never, ever had the time to get all the information together and all the deeds drawn up.”

Tim Smith, a spokesman with the S.C. Department of Revenue, said via email that every South Carolina county is required by law to establish a forfeited land commission.

The commission’s purpose, he said, is to ensure that bids at delinquent tax sales satisfy the delinquent and current tax amounts.

“The FLC may sell any property in its portfolio in any way possible, as long as the sale is determined by the FLC to be in the best interest of the county,” Smith said. “The point is to get the property back on the tax rolls and contributing to the tax base of the county.”

Smith couldn’t say what consequences a county might face for not establishing a land commission.

“It is a requirement in the statute, but we don’t know who would challenge that to enforce it or who would suffer damage,” he said.

The Fairfield commission consists of three members: Peggy Hensley, county auditor; Judy Bonds, register of deeds; and Norma Branham, county treasurer. Branham was appointed commission chair. Jim Thompson with the assessor’s office was designated the agent of the commission.
Also at the Nov. 11 meeting, commissioners voted to adopt a policies and procedures manual that lists the duties and powers of the commission and its officers.

It also delineates who has first rights of refusal of a property, and the order in which a party can place bids.