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Heirs lament loss of heritage in court-ordered sale of family land

fr familylandEvery year on the first weekend in August, Linda Maxwell and other heirs of patriarch H.B. Wood make a pilgrimage to family land in the rural reaches of Little Canada and gather at the Wood cemetery where so many of their other descendents rest.

But, this could be the last year that the family is able to relish that heritage because of a legal conundrum involving her and 94 of her closest relatives.

Maxwell’s great-grandfather H.B. Wood owned about 300 acres in Little Canada, a rugged and remote area of Jackson County. He died in 1931 without a will, so the property was informally divvied up and shared among his 11 children.

One of those was Maxwell’s grandfather, Huston Wood, who worked a number of odd jobs throughout his life, lived in a house on the property and operated a small general store selling only the necessities from the side of his home.

“My grandfather lived up there a long time and had a house and a store and just a lot of memories,” Maxwell said. “We got a lot of memories of it, and we just like going back up there.”

At one point, gathering family members even considered clearing a section of the land to use as a campsite whenever they wanted.

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However, Huston Wood’s property along with his 10 brothers’ and sisters’ portions is now up for sale after a more than two-year legal process triggered by one of H.B. Wood’s 95 known descendants.

When H.B. Wood died in 1931, he left no will detailing how he wanted to divide his possessions. At least some of his children continued to live on the property with their own families after his death and eventually all 11 siblings died as well. None of them had wills either, and none had thought to officially divvy up the property amongst themselves while they were still alive.

Fast-forward to a few years ago. A descendent of H.B. Wood, Richard “Dickie” Melton, walked into the office of Sylva attorney Jay Coward inquiring about selling the property.

Before Melton could sell off his presumed share of the land, however, the first step was figuring out just who else might have a claim to the property.

Melton had already done some genealogical research of his own into his family tree, but Coward’s office reviewed the list and cast a wide net, like placing an ad in the newspaper, in an attempt to find all of the living heirs of H.B. Wood who had a stake in the property.

In the end, 95 were identified.

Hazel Heaton, a descendent of Huston Wood and Maxwell’s cousin, was shocked to hear about Melton’s plan to put the land on the market.

“We couldn’t understand why a distant cousin who lives in Charleston who never goes up there would be the one who would instigate the selling of the property,” Heaton said.

Heaton and Maxwell were two of the heirs who had paid the property taxes on the plot in Little Canada over the years.

“I couldn’t understand why they could take the land from us when we paid the taxes,” Heaton said.

No matter what one individual’s wish was, however, the heirs needed to decide as a group what to do with the property. Should it be sliced into 95 separate properties? Should it be sold? The decision would be difficult even among just a few close family members, but getting a group of 95 — many of whom have never known the other descendents or even seen the property — to come to an agreement is another matter.

Only a dozen of the descendents still live in North Carolina. The others are spread across the U.S.

If they decided to chop the 303 acres into 95 pieces, more difficult decisions would follow. Given the nature of mountain terrain, splitting it among H.B. Wood’s 11 children would not have been a simple task, let alone dividing it amongst 95 heirs.

Perhaps if the 300-plus acres were a mostly flat plot down east, then the divvying of portions would not be so complicated. But, in the mountains, land and its value differ wildly from location to location. One three-acre plot could be worth more than another three-acre strip depending on the make-up of the land. The H.B. Wood property goes from beautiful, grass-laden pastures to steep, mountainous inclines — making it difficult to fairly divide.

“Fairness would be subjective,” Coward said.

And, not each descendent is entitled to the same stake in the land. If H.B. Wood’s children had chosen to split the land, each would have received one-eleventh of the property. Then, if one child has two of his own, those two would be entitled to half of their father’s eleventh. If another child had five children of her own, the five siblings would receive a fifth of their mother’s eleventh, and so on and so forth. The process quickly becomes complicated.

“You can quickly spiral into crazy fractions,” Coward said.

And in the end, many of the heirs would likely have elected to sell their share anyway.

“I feel such a piecemeal approach could result in the prime portions of the property being sold and leaving the poorer portions unsold, devalued, and possibly with limited or no accessibility,” said Rhonda Little, one of Wood’s heirs, in a letter dated March 2011, contained in a massive court file on the subject. “Therefore, I think selling all 308.463 acres in a single transaction will be in the best interest of all parties concerned.”

So rather than delve into that knotty mess, the majority agreed to sell off the property.


Land equals heritage

But a small faction, including Linda Maxwell, took the minority standpoint, hoping to keep hold of the land where they have so many memories and there is so much heritage.

The overriding reason for wanting to sell the property seems to be money.

“We want the payment is what we want. We want the money that is coming to us as an heir,” said Pearle Wood of Nebo. Wood is the 89-year old widow of one of H.B. Wood’s grandsons.

Pearle Wood said she did not know of any family members who used the property anymore and thought it was going to waste simply sitting there.

“It had been handed down for three generations and no deed and nobody using it in the family,” Wood said. “All of that land laying there for nothing.”

Although her father used to take her up to the property to camp as a little girl, another heir, Barbara Bassett, feels no personal connection to the land itself.

“I’ve always thought it should be sold,” said Bassett, who lives in Upstate South Carolina.

In an attempt to not lose the land completely, Maxwell and her close relatives tried to convince the others to let them keep the section of land where their grandfather Huston Wood lived and where they would gather at least once a year.

“A group of us wanted to keep our grandfather’s 50 acres,” Heaton said. “I wanted to keep it because it was my grandfather’s property.”

But, other descendents simply wanted to sell the property whole hog.

Heaton, who was particularly hurt by the decision, said she could only think of one reason why they were not allowed to hang on to part of the property.

“Greed is one thing. That is the only thing I can come up with,” Heaton said.

Ultimately, the sale of the property was ordered by the court in Jackson County, where the case had been playing out as a special proceedings. The next hurdle is actually selling the property. Unsurprisingly, there is not much of a market for large tracts of land since the real estate crash in the mountains. Property values are just now looking like they might be rebounding. But, it could still take years to sell.

“It’s going to take a long time for a tract that large to sell,” said Jack Debnam, a Jackson County Realtor appointed by the court to handle the sale.

The property is worth about $3 million but will likely garner a lower price given the current economy. The money will then be doled out among H.B. Wood’s 95 heirs according to whatever percentage they’re entitled to.

“I am pretty sure no one’s going to get rich off of it,” Maxwell said.

A tract of land like this is rare, not because of its size but because it’s still in the hand of the original family who settled it. Most large plots today are owned by real estate developers who plan to sell the land piecemeal.

“There still are some big tracts, but they are not owned like this one,” Coward said.

Giant family-owned lots used to be much more common in the past. The land would pass down through the generations who lived, fished, hunted and hiked on the property. Over time, the number of family-owned tracts has continued to decline as fewer people are using them to farm.

Had H.B. Wood or any of his children drafted wills, the whole matter would be much more mundane and less complex. The wills would allow specific members of the extended Wood family to stake their claim over a portion of the land, and maybe Maxwell and others may not be forced to relinquish their claim to the property.

It is unfortunate that this is how things worked out, Coward said, but not having a will played a big role in the land’s fate.

“It destroys a family heritage and land,” Coward said.

Out of the whole debacle, Maxwell has gleaned an important point — always have a will.

“That is what everybody oughta do,” Maxwell said. “It would have been clear how they wanted the land.”

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