Ghost-divisions: who needs swampland when you have a field?
It’s kind of hard to believe that in a City like Hamilton, Ontario, where development land is at a premium, there are huge swaths of land that seem to be stuck in some form of ’70’s time capsule.
When a lot isn’t a lot in Hamilton
As I was enquiring about a lot that I had been asked to evaluate, a Planner at City Hall explained to me that “there are these old plans of subdivisions that were on the table back in the ’70’s and for one reason or another they just never went anywhere.” On the City’s planning map, they show as one big parcel, still carrying the original agricultural zoning. There are lines on the map that show the lots that were once proposed, but the City claims that they never recognized the creation of the lots; even though it’s clear that all of the lots do have separate deeds.
In the case of the lot I was researching, the 75’ x 100’ property is one of 50 similar sized lots that are individually deeded. Together, they comprise approximately 35 acres of prime land- land that if assembled, would be able to handle a substantial number of residential units. They’re in close proximity to newer residential developments and services. The lots have separate PIN and Roll numbers- they are assessed as individual pieces of agricultural land; approximately $25,000 each, yet they can never be built on. First reason is that the land is still zoned agricultural, they’re not serviced. According to zoning regulations, they’re too small to build on. Secondly, they don’t have a municipal address; aside for private dirt roads or lanes, they’re inaccessible.
Sometimes it’s a lot…sometimes it’s not
This is where it gets interesting. The City claims that these lots, even though they’re individually deeded simply do not exist. Rather, the City views this property as one big chunk of agricultural land that is owned by 50 different parties. They claim these lots were never severed- even though their map clearly shows them. In the City’s opinion this is one big land co-op. Now, if that was actually the case, then these “imaginary” lots wouldn’t be able to be transferred but over the past decade, as the original owners have passed away, these lots have been transferred to their heirs. If it was in fact a co-op or some form of joint ownership, there wouldn’t be an individual deed to transfer- it would be some joint ownership agreement, assigning the individual interest in the 35 acres.
To make it more perplexing, over the past couple decades, some of these “not really lots lots” have been sold to adjacent property owners who do have frontage on a major road. These are probably the only people who may find value in the ghost lots that are in their backyard. Some have moved to purchase an adjacent lot and by doing so, the lots have merged and this is where I really get lost.
If it’s one big chunk of land with a lot of owners, how is it possible for one of the owners to sell their imaginary lot to a neighbour without obtaining a severance out of the larger chunk? I asked the Planner- he looked confused.
Not the only Ghost-division in Hamilton!
A colleague who’s familiar with development in the City of Hamilton tells me that there are a lot of these “ghost-divisions” in the City; land that the City allowed to be divided and sold 30 or 40 years ago and is now content on pretending the lots don’t really exist, or that they’re somehow part of a land co-op; a strange holding pattern where individuals, without any form of group approval, can transfer their assigned imaginary parcel out of the larger parcel…without any form of severance or City approval. Interesting concept that makes absolutely no sense.
After giving this a lot of thought I’ve come to the conclusion the only the City can really fix a “ghost-division”. They know where they are; all of the owners of the ghost lots are individually billed for taxes to the City.
With a shortage of development land in the City, many would love the opportunity to acquire these parcels; unfortunately, it would be a very difficult task for anyone to assemble this land because the owners actually believe that they own a building lot that is worth 6 figures, rather than a share equivalent to 1/3rd acre of raw agricultural land with a value closer to $10,000.
What could the City of Hamilton do?
- Identify the “ghost-divisions” and determine how much development land is frozen in time.
- Contact every “ghost-lot” owner and explain to them that they do not really own a lot; rather they have an interest in entire parcel of land that formed an original Plan of Subdivision.
- Market the parcels to interested parties.
- Facilitate a sale and divide the proceeds with the registered owners.
- OR, the City could buy the land themselves and convert it into green space or park land.
Of course, this is all very wishful thinking. I know it’s easier for the City to just put their heads in the sand and forget that these “ghost-divisions” even exist. I doubt I’m the first Realtor® who has made an inquiry on behalf of someone who wants to sell one of these imaginary lots. Problem is that as the City grows, these ghost-divisions will always be an obstacle to smart growth mainly because it’s acreage that stands little chance of ever being developed. Only the City has the ability to make this land viable and in an area where development land is at a premium, I would think they’d have the motivation to do so as well.