By HALEY BEMILLER
Wausau Daily Herald
SCHOFIELD, Wis. (AP) — Diane Neumann has owned a house on Depot Street in Schofield since 1994 — or so she had thought.
It turns out her home is split down the middle, and much of it doesn’t belong to her.
Neumann and her neighbors learned this year that part of their properties are owned by the Canadian National Railway, even though they’ve spent years paying mortgages and property taxes, the USA Today Network-Wisconsin reported. The houses sit just feet away from a set of railroad tracks. But until now, Neumann said, the railroad has never been a source of anxiety.
According to a recent plat survey, the railroad’s land extends along Depot Street starting at Ross Avenue and continues right through the homes of Neumann and her neighbors. The land where Depot Street sits also belongs to the railroad, not the city.
Neumann is stuck. She planned to sell the home to her daughter, who has been living there with her family for a few years. But she can’t sell a house that isn’t hers. According to the survey, Neumann can stake a claim only to part of the house’s kitchen and a back room.
“They own more than half of my house,” she said.
Depot Street runs parallel to the tracks in an industrial area of Schofield. Neumann’s house sits on the north side of the street, the front yard disguised by greenery. Past that is a house with gray siding, teal shutters and a porch around the side and back.
Neumann moved out a few years ago so her daughter’s family could take up residence. None of them knew anything about the railroad land until wooden stakes appeared in the yard in late March. In April she got in touch with city officials, who told her they were trying to ascertain who owned a dilapidated, abandoned house on that block.
Then someone from the city explained to Neumann that she doesn’t legally own her home.
The city requested the plat survey because it wants to raze the abandoned home on that block, said Lee Turonie, an attorney for the city of Schofield. The survey, dated March 2018, shows that vacant house belongs to the railroad — along with parts of the neighboring properties, including Neumann’s.
Turonie said the city caught wind of a possible pitfall a year ago. The city found records from the mid-1990s indicating that the former owner of the now-abandoned house had worked with a private attorney to secure land from the railroad, he said. The railroad wasn’t owned by Canadian National then, and the city wasn’t involved or aware of the possible conflict at the time, he said.
Officials discovered there hadn’t been an official plat survey in that neighborhood, Turonie said. Instead, land was mapped out using the old metes-and-bounds system, a sometimes inconsistent method that uses a series of reference points and compass directions to define boundaries.
The stretch of Depot Street that runs past Neumann’s house also isn’t in the correct place, Turonie said, since it shifts over past Ross Avenue for an unknown reason and doesn’t run straight through the intersection.
“Like a lot of things, things don’t get solved because someone’s got to spend money to do it,” he said.
And because railroads don’t pay local taxes, Turonie said, all of this was able to fly under the radar.
“It is quite literally a mess,” he said.
In response, Turonie said the city is working with the railway to see if it can buy the land. Patrick Waldron, a spokesman for the Canadian National Railway, confirmed that the railway has been in contact with Schofield officials about surveying work done in that area. He declined to comment further.
If Schofield is able to secure the land, Turonie said, the city will most likely be able to clear the titles for the residents and sell the land to them. The City Council would decide if the residents owe the city anything, he said.
Meanwhile, Neumann believes the city may owe her money from years of paying taxes on property she didn’t own. Marathon County land records show that Neumann paid $2,366 in taxes for 2017. Of that, $772 went to the city of Schofield. The property was assessed at $106,700.
To the best of her knowledge, Neumann said, she’s been paying taxes on the entire house — including the part belonging to the railroad. But no one has definitely told her one way or the other, she said. Turonie said he doubts she’s overpaid property taxes because the home’s assessed value covers only the part she owns.
As the city negotiates with the railroad, Neumann and her neighbors wait, frustrated, for answers about the future of their homes.
“I was under the assumption — never assume, people — that you own your home once you get the title or the deed,” she said. “And it’s not true.”