In areas such as the Western United States, there are several locations where the ownership of the land is in question. More specifically, for example, there was an article in the USA Today newspaper (12-15-00) that talked about the confusion that began under an 1872 mining law that encouraged settlement of the West by giving land away to people who had done at least a minimal amount of mining on the land. The miners could then apply for a ‘mining patent’ and, once granted, the land was legally theirs. The problem was that several different government agencies were involved in the process of issuing ‘mining patents’. These government agencies kept their own separate map records and often did not compare their maps with each other as often or as accurately as they should have, due, in part, to the rapid claiming and settlement of the land in those days. Problems arose when miners, who had applied for and obtained ‘mining patents’, were given land that overlapped claims that had already been deeded to previous patent holders. Other problems arose when patent holders, who needed workers to work in their mines, had given permission (I assume to have been temporary/conditional) to build their homes on property owned by the miners holding the patent rights to the land. Eventually, the mining activity died out, but the people continued to live on the land. Counties just started listing the new properties on their tax rolls creating this dual ownership confusion.
Probably the best way to clear up this mess would be as follows. First, only original, official land claims (mining patents) would be honored while successive mining patents would not. Successive patent holders (or their legal descendants) should have the option to buy their disputed land from the original patent holders (or their legal descendants) if they want to sell, for the fair market value of the land only, excluding any improvements or developments. If the successive patent holders (or their legal descendants) want to buy the land, the government (or whatever agency was responsible for giving rise to this problem) would be the party required to pay the original patent holders (or their legal descendant) for the cost of the land.
Similarly, original settlers or legal descendants to whom the property has been gifted, and who have been paying taxes on it should also be allowed to buy the land (if the original owner wants to sell) with the government paying the bill. But since these people never did legally own the land, the government should cap their payment to the original patent holder to an amount equal to the total property taxes that have been paid by that parcel since the very beginning. The current residents would need to pay the rest, if necessary.
In cases where such parcels were sold by someone not holding a deed for the parcel and the current occupants have paid the full market price of the parcel (land and development), the government should bare the full cost (land only) required to satisfy the original patent holder for the land in dispute.
If the land is currently in use by a successive patent holder, the original owner would have the right to begin an eviction. However, such evictions must be orderly and must provide the current occupant with plenty of time (up to 10 years) to vacate the land, depending on its current use and the specifics of each case. In cases of eviction, the government should pay the successive patent holders (or their legal descendants) for the cost of the improvements to that land. If the original settlers or their legal descendants or others who similarly have never held any deed to the property are evicted, the government should pay them the equivalent of the amount of property taxes that have been paid by that parcel since the beginning to compensate them for losing the benefits of the developments to the land.
If the patent holders’ official deed records issued by the government have been lost and no alternative methods exist for practically reconstructing these records, then the government (through the courts, if necessary) should try to authenticate the deed claims and ascribe a probability of such claims being true. For example, if the government determines that their is a 50% chance of the deed claim being true, then the holder of the claim should be allowed to sell that land for 50% of the current value of the land only. This would exclude the value of any developments or improvements unless, of course, the original patent holder (or a legal descendant) actually developed or improved the land.
The original patent holders would have the right to ask any squatter on their land to leave. But as punishment to patent holders who have not actively and continuously contested the presence of squatters or informed them of their illegal residence, the patent holder must compensate the squatter for all the improvements (buildings, etc.) made on the land at full market rates and cannot force the squatter to remove them. If patent holders did actively contest the land for a long time to both the government and residents alike, these patent holders should not be required to compensate the current land users the full amount but only maybe 25% with the government picking up the rest of the bill for land improvements. It would be wrong to force people to leave their homes and businesses without proper compensation after living often large portions of their lives on lands whose ownership was not clearly contested by others or properly recorded and enforced by the government.