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State Supreme Court reverses lower courts Sapelo Island land ruling
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The Supreme Court of Georgia has reversed a McIntosh County court ruling in a dispute among heirs over who legally owns land in the historic Hog Hammock Subdivision on Sapelo Island, according to a case summary released by the state high court last month.

In the unanimous opinion in Johnson v. Holmes, Chief Justice Hugh Thompson writes that the trial court erred by ruling that the two acres belongs to Edna Holmes to the exclusion of her cousins because the 59-year-old deed on which she relies is insufficient.

“Accordingly, we reverse the trial court’s judgment,” the opinion says, and, “We remand this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

The genesis of the dispute dates back to the 1950s when tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds’ son, Richard Joshua Reynolds Jr., who owned land on Sapelo, started to consolidate his holdings. Reynolds exchanged multiple parcels in the Hog Hammock Subdivision for equal acreage in the Raccoon Bluff Subdivision.

The record shows that Reynolds intended to acquire large tracts next to one another to create a hunting ranch. One of these land exchanges included the Hog Hammock parcel, which in a 1957 deed, Reynolds intended to convey to Ronister Johnson.

Reynolds approached Ronister Johnson as the representative for the Johnson family’s land in Raccoon Bluff because Ronister was the oldest of 16 siblings. The deed described the property as two acres “in the Hog Hammock Subdivision and shown on the map of said subdivision as a portion of Lot No. 28, and shown on the map of said Subdivision...”

Reynolds died in 1964, and all his land passed to his wife, Annemarie Schmidt Reynolds. Five years later, she sold the land to the state of Georgia and the Sapelo Island Research Fund.

By 1976, the Reynolds estate no longer had title to any property on Sapelo. Three years later, in 1979, someone anonymously recorded the 1957 deed in the McIntosh County records. A hand-drawn map was recorded the same day. The map is unsigned, undated and bears no label or description. It makes no reference to the “Hog Hammock Subdivision” and simply depicts “2 acres additional Johnson estate” within the boundary lines of plot number “28.”

In 1982, Ronister Johnson and his brother, concerned about the adequacy of the legal description in the 1957 deed, approached the Sapelo Island Research Fund and asked it to draw up a deed with a sufficient legal description to replace the 1957 deed. The organization agreed and, after an unexplained delay, executed a new deed in 1992 in favor of the seven living children of Ronister Johnson’s parents.

In 2011, Eldora Cabral, Ronister’s daughter, filed a lawsuit claiming exclusive title to the 2 acres, against the interests of the descendants of her father’s siblings. While the lawsuit was pending, Cabral died and her daughter, Edna Holmes, stepped in as the plaintiff. Four of her cousins counterclaimed that under the 1992 deed, the land was to be shared among the descendants of the seven siblings.

In 2015, the trial court ruled in Holmes’ favor, finding that the 1957 deed had a valid legal description and that Holmes was the exclusive owner of the land. Julius Johnson and three other descendants then appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.

“On its face, the description in the 1957 deed is insufficient to identify the property purportedly conveyed to Ronister Johnson,” the high court opinion says. “Of course, a deed can incorporate extrinsic material, such as a map or plat, by reference and where it does, ‘such map or plat will ordinarily be considered as incorporated in the deed itself.’ In this case, however, the reference to the map of the Hog Hammock Subdivision fails because no such map has been found and the hand-drawn rendering recorded with the deed is not that map.”

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