MUSCATINE — In the lifetime of a citizen, the path a river cuts through a county will be more or less the same from the beginning to the end. But for the county itself, the shifting paths of rivers bring some unexpected problems that demand creative solutions from the minds in the Muscatine Administrative Building. 

The shifting has created a headache for Muscatine's county assessor, Dale McCrae.

"The river moves over a period of time and surveys will sometimes say, 'Go to the river bank,' McCrea said. But as rivers like the Cedar and Mississippi erode land one one side and add it to another, land owners will lose or gain land.

But when they don't specify to the river bank and instead to something more specific like a a number of feet in a particular direction, sometimes surveys will come back with parcels of land that don't have a clear owner.

"When the river moves, if it moves slowly, one landowner gains, one loses, but it changes fairly quickly in a flood or something, then you could have the landowner owning ground on both sides of the river, where before it was all on one side," McCrea said.

The county refers to these as unknown owner parcels. According to the assessor's office, there are 127 unknown owner parcels across the county with an assessed value of approximately $303,250.

But as McCrae said, most of these parcels are not capable of cultivation or forestry.

"Most of it is waste ground," McCrae said, "but hunters and recreational people, they love that stuff."

The problem occurs when several owners' property lines are adjacent to the unknown owner parcel. 

"Who gets what?" McCrae said pointing at survey map. "There is no easy answer to that."

A decade ago, the county policy was to sell them off and get them back producing money for the county.

"The idea was to put them up and let people go to tax sale," McCrae said. "But what happened was, for example, I could go in and buy this (unknown owner parcel) and the surrounding owners wouldn't know it was on tax sale if they didn't watch the (tax sale) list because we don't send notification out." 

Making matters worse for the landowners adjacent to the property, Iowa Code requires adjacent properties to allow exit and entrance into the land. That's how it came to the Muscatine County Board of Supervisors.

"A person did buy some and that aggravated the surrounding landowners so they came to the supervisors," McCrae said. "And that's when that policy ended."

It is a policy question, and one that is unlikely to have an easy answer.

"Those are the issues we have to deal with," McCrae said. "We can't just arbitrarily assign property because if you may have three property owners that touch it, if you extend property lines, it's going intersect and cross over each other. Who gets what? There is no specified delineation of how you divide that property."

Though it is still in the drafting phase, Muscatine County offered a draft of the policy they are working on for the acquisition of unknown owner parcels. It would require prospective owners to already own property immediately adjacent to the unknown owner parcel and to obtain Quit Claim Deeds from all adjacent property owners. The prospective owner would then be responsible for conducting a survey to define the parameters of the parcel in question. Finally, the owner must either pay in full all delinquent and current taxes, request the board of supervisors approve a negotiated tax amount or request the board take action to abate outstanding taxes. 

This is only a proposed way of solving the problem and has not been voted on by the board of supervisors. Until that vote comes, McCrae said he just hopes people realize the complexity of the issue.

"It's not easily resolved," McCrae said. "And the river really makes these a headache."

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