Family say land grab’ inquiry is too late
A family who lost their title to a prime piece of land said a Commission of Inquiry into “land grabs” may not be able to compensate them.
Etoile Burch, 98, said her family could even hold a claim on land now occupied by the Grand Atlantic condominium development in Warwick, which is scheduled to be turned into a resort.
Ms Burch fought an unsuccessful legal bid to regain another plot of Warwick property left to her by her father, Lemuel Tucker, who died in 1945.
She said she and her family discovered the records involving land on Dunscombe Road only in 2011.
She said: “It was conveyed to me in 1939, but I was married and had a big family, and my husband and I kept moving from one place to another. I didn’t know about it for years.”
David A. Burch, Ms Burch’s son, said he tracked down records in the Bermuda Archives in the early 2000s.
Suggestions that the family owned property in the Warwick area, which included the Grand Atlantic development, first came up at a family funeral.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that a portion of the Dunscombe Road property that had been occupied by Westend Properties Ltd, part of the Fairmont Southampton, was now owned by the firm.
The court said the land had been held so long by Westend Properties, without any action by the Burch family to recover it, that the original owner’s title had become void.
The family said they believed there were other properties in the area they owned, but were discouraged by the expense of legal fees and slow pace of the courts.
Mr Burch said: “For a long time they just kept us at bay in the courts. It’s like they wear you down.”
His mother added that she held out little hope of a Commission of Inquiry helping the family.
She said: “You get your hopes up and it’s dashed. We have been through so many lawyers over the years.
“I have some relatives on financial assistance. If I have property out there, I could sell it.
“As far as I’m concerned, waiting and waiting through pain and suffering, I should get something.”
Ms Burch added the long-running dispute was “very distressing, especially when I try to call one of my boys and he’s got no money for the phone”.
Robert Seymour, Mr Burch’s brother, said that the courts “seem like a form of obstruction because the system is so antiquated”.
He added: “When cases keep coming to the court, there should be some inquiry into why they’re not getting to the bottom of it.”
Walton Brown, the Minister of Home Affairs, who called for a land-grab investigation in 2014 while in Opposition, said last month that a Commission of Inquiry was “still very much on the agenda”.
Mr Brown called for an inquiry into “historic losses” of property through “illicit practices by a cabal of lawyers, real estate agents and banks” in the House of Assembly four years ago.
The motion was backed by MPs, but the call was turned down by then Governor George Fergusson.
Rick Woolridge, a lawyer who has researched land-grab cases, said the Burches could appeal the Dunscombe Road case and might be able to track down other lots.
Mr Woolridge added he was also prepared to offer his services to a commission.
Mr Woolridge added: “Someone will have to finance the cases or, through a Commission of Inquiry, these things can be brought to light. This is serious stuff and it happened all around the country.”
Mr Woolridge said Ms Burch’s father’s original property on South Shore was “huge”.
He added: “He sold off bits and pieces over the years, but he saved the piece at Grand Atlantic. In the Second World War, the Americans wanted to put a gun battery up there.
“Mr Tucker could not lease directly to the Americans, so he leased to the Bermuda Government which leased it.”
Mr Woolridge said that the land was never returned to the Burch family.
He added that black families in the past were more likely to be the victims of land grabs than white ones.
Mr Woolridge said: “Going back to the 1800s, white folks wanted to be near to commerce and transportation, but after the Second World War came the advent of tourism, and black people owned all the beachfront.”