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This Parcel Is Dwarfed by Its Price Tag

The minimum bid for a square inch of Indiana is $1,500, but its exact location is unclear.

November 19, 2005|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

JACKSON TOWNSHIP, Ind. — If you thought the price of real estate was out of control in California, try picking up a tiny piece of property in this rural stretch of central Indiana: one-square-inch of land is being sold for $1,500.

Originally, the parcel -- about the size of a postage stamp -- was part of a larger tract located in the oak-tree lined hills near Cataract Lake, about 60 miles southwest of Indianapolis.

The main thing growing on it over the last few years has been its unpaid tax bill to Owen County.

The land is approximately 0.0000000159 of an acre.

When the bank and county tried to sell off the parcel at a tax sale last month, there was a catch: the minimum bid for such parcels in the county, no matter how small, is $1,500.

No one bid on the bite-sized deal -- small enough, those trying to sell it say, to have value as a curiosity if not much else. County officials say that although they can't prove it, they believe it's possibly the smallest deeded parcel out there.

"They had no vision, no sense of the true value of this gem," said Richard W. Lorenz, the county's attorney. Besides, he noted, "that's enough money to pay the dog-catcher's salary for more than a couple months. We need that money."

Added Angie Lawson, auditor for Owen County: "It's the most ridiculous thing, but I suppose you could plant a single dandelion on it. Maybe you could build a gym for ants?"

The property is in a remote area -- a region where more than a century ago Davy Crockett owned property, according to county records. Today, the federal government owns most of the nearby land.

The real estate deal that resulted in the tiny parcel dates to the 1960s, when a homeowner's association decreed that only landowners could swim in Cataract Lake's cool waters or fish there for blue gill. One resident decided to get around that rule by writing up a deed to his relatives, giving them ownership of a single square inch of his land.

When the owner of the full parcel failed to pay the mortgage on the property, First National Bank of Cloverdale foreclosed in 2002, county officials said. Because of the unusual deed, the bank broke out the one-inch parcel as a separate plot from the larger 1.12-acre property, Lawson said.

Even though the larger property sold, the taxes kept piling up on the tiny parcel as if it were the larger property. The outstanding tax bill is now $1,224 -- not much shy of the county minimum for a tax auction, as it turns out.

Residents across this rural county of about 22,000 say they always considered the one-inch parcel to be a local oddity.

Getting to it takes some work.

It's more than 10 miles northwest of Spencer, the county seat. Visitors must drive to the end of a long, narrow private gravel road that has no street sign; cross over a dense, wooded ravine; hike several hundred yards west, trespassing on federal land; and look down. The ground is covered in broken blades of dried grass, dark oak leaves and dozens of small rocks.

Yet finding the exact location is something that even county officials can't do.

"We only started doing regular surveys of that area in the last few years, and there were no platting instruments to create the specific outlines on a computer," said Peter Dorsey, who runs the county's mapping department.

Also, said Dorsey, there was no oversight on what land could, and could not, be deeded.

"We have to rely on the physical description in the deeds, and make a best-case guess," Dorsey said. "We've got the one-inch narrowed down to within a few feet. No one's wanted to spend the $500 to figure out the exact location with a survey."

Although no bids came in from the tax sale, word of the unusual offering spread on the Internet after a local newspaper wrote about it.

When dozens of would-be buyers flooded the county with offers -- including those from a dot-com company promising to provide free medical supplies to area hospitals and a radio disc jockey in Israel offering a certified check for the full amount in order to set up an official state of Palestine -- residents say they were too shocked to laugh.

"It sort of takes the whole idea of the American dream of owning land to a different level," said Delora Wesner, 63, who owns Delora's Designs Flea Market & Antiques shop in downtown Spencer.

Most parcels in the area are sold by the acre -- about $3,500 per acre. If every square inch in the surrounding acre were worth $1,500, the acre would be worth nearly $9.4 billion. That's at least 5,000 times the value of the average price of a 2,200-square-foot home in La Jolla.

Lorenz said he has fielded at least 40 offers -- some serious, some not; the highest was in the neighborhood of a few thousand.

County and bank officials, however, decided they could do better. They've put the plot up for sale on EBay. The ad, promoted as "One Inch Tract of Land," was posted Friday.

By Friday afternoon, there was already one bid for $1,500.

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