SUNRISE BEACH, Texas (KXAN) — Growing up in a military family, Paul Weyland never really had a place to call home. But, there was one constant: a lake house in the hill country on Lake LBJ was his happy place where he made memories year after year.
“The man next door, who is 90 now, taught me how to water ski when I was about 11 or 12,” Weyland said with a big smile, followed by a deep laugh.
His grandparents bought the property in the City of Sunrise Beach Village in 1958, while they were stationed in San Antonio. They started camping on the serene spot that always had a breeze, and they eventually built a small red house that became the family’s place to gather together to get away from the hustle and bustle.
“It’s like sacred ground here for us,” Weyland said.
Weyland bought the property in 2006 from his mom, but right before the deal went through, he said the title company had some unwelcome news.
“[They said] ‘Well, apparently you don’t own the first few feet up to the waterfront and then the property that the dock is on,'” Weyland said. “And we’re going, ‘Huh?’ I mean, total surprise. We felt like we had been mugged.”
Who owns the lakefront?
Weyland, who didn’t use a realtor because the lake house was staying in the family, had not heard about this “fill area” issue other property owners had already faced. When a retaining wall is built along the water, the dirt brought in to back-fill the shoreline and form a level backyard is referred to as fill area.
Mike Lucksinger, an attorney and co-owner of Highland Lakes Title, which does most of the title work in the area, said it was common over the years for property owners to build retaining walls when the lake was lowered without getting a survey.
That’s why the retaining walls and property lines don’t match up. What people didn’t realize was they wouldn’t own the fill area built beyond their original lot lines. The fill area often belonged to various developers or ranchers who still owned some of the land along the Highland Lakes.
Lucksinger said his title company does not force anyone to buy the fill area, but it is required for the title to be insured.
That’s where Brad Shaw, a former surveyor, comes in. He saw a business opportunity and acquired the Sunrise Beach fill areas and the underwater land in a deal with the original developer.
Back in the early 2000s, Kingsland native Shaw said he figured out a man in New Jersey owned the fill and lake bed in Sunrise Beach.
In a telephone interview, Shaw said he acquired the land from the New Jersey man while he was in poor health. Shaw would not disclose the amount he paid for it.
Shaw said his company WST Investments, LLC paid cash for at least 1,000 individual tracts of land along LBJ. KXAN found more than 320 deeds tied to Shaw that appear to be small tracts he’s sold over the years along the lake in Llano County.
Weyland said he wrote a check to Shaw for $1,500 to own all the way to the water, and just beyond his dock. The title company said the step was necessary to insure the title.
‘Sometimes you gotta pick your battles to fight’
Some lakefront property owners have caught wind of the issue through their neighbors. Bobby Joe “Buzz” Miller wasn’t buying or selling but decided to pay Shaw $8,000 while he was building a new lake house and boat dock on property that had been in his family for years. Miller said he did it so he could take care of the issue and avoid any more surprises and financial burden on his family down the road.
“Were we upset? Yes, we were,” Miller said. “Sometimes you gotta pick your battles to fight, and for us, we were under construction. We wanted to get it done.”
While some believe Shaw is taking advantage of property owners, Shaw said he believes he is helping the transactions go through at the title company. He said he never forces anyone to buy, even when they’re using and building on property he owns.
“I have not in any way, shape or form told them, ‘I’m sorry, I own your boat dock, I own your waterfront, you can’t trespass.’ I don’t do that, haven’t done that. Never will. They have full use, and it’s exclusive use as far as I’m concerned,” Shaw said.
Candy Cooke is a realtor and appraiser who knows Shaw.
“Is it illegal? No. Is it right? No, I don’t think so,” Cooke said. “These people have maintained that property, they have paid taxes based on the assumption that they had that property — that they had waterfront.”
Shaw hit with survey complaints
Shaw gave up his surveyor’s license in 2003 after the Texas Board of Professional Land Surveying moved to revoke it. The board received multiple complaints against Shaw, including one about waterside land ownership.
A notice of violation report obtained through an open records request said Shaw wrote letters to about 40 waterfront property owners and offered to sell them deeds to land along the water. Some paid him, but then Shaw had to pay fines because the board said it’s a serious violation and he should have known land belongs to the landowner.
The board concluded that he was trying to “profit” from what they called a “scheme.”
Shaw not paying property taxes on lakefront land
In addition to questions about the land transactions themselves, Cooke, Weyland and Miller all raised concerns about how little Shaw is paying in property taxes for the lakeside tracts he still owns.
According to records obtained by KXAN, Shaw paid $8.19 last year on 600 acres of fill area and underwater land, but the Llano County Central Appraisal District has never appraised Shaw’s waterfront investment.
“We do not know exactly where it is or truly how much there is,” said Scott Dudley, the Llano County chief appraiser.
According to Dudley, there’s no map showing what Shaw owns, and the original deed is too vague to define the bounds of his property. That means the appraisal district would have to map and survey every property, and the appraisal district doesn’t have those resources, he said.
Year after year when everyone else’s property taxes go up, Shaw’s stay the same. Dudley said Shaw’s land appraisal is a rough estimate and set prior to his arrival.
According to the appraisal district, Shaw protested his property taxes in 2004 on the land in question. Shaw told KXAN the appraisal district wanted to raise his taxes, but could not prove how much he owned.
“The fact that he’s not paying tax or very little tax is like a kick in the side,” Weyland said.
Shaw claims he doesn’t know exactly what he owns, either. It becomes more clear when he gets a call from a homeowner, title company or realtor once a survey has been done. When KXAN asked the chief appraiser if they intend to appraise the land, Dudley said that’s out of the appraisal district’s scope of work.
Dudley added Shaw does not have to disclose what he sells each tract for, which means his office does not have sales prices to compare. He told KXAN if lakefront property owners share the information directly with his office, that information would be helpful.
Shaw made it clear to KXAN if the appraisal district ever raises his taxes, he will raise his prices. That is also a concern for those who have yet to purchase all their property.
“Two or three years from now, what’s it going to cost the next poor son of a gun?” Miller said.
Appraisers assessing ‘fill area’ in other places
KXAN checked on how the fill and lake bed is appraised and valued in other areas along the Highland Lakes. The Lower Colorado River Authority owns fill and lake bed and said it only sells it to adjacent landowners. The City of Granite Shoals bought all its fill years ago and will sell it to lakefront property owners as well.
In both cases, they use appraisers. LCRA spokesperson Clara Tuma said the fill is valued at the same amount per square foot as the land it’s connected to, which appears to be much higher than what Shaw is charging.
Appraiser Donna Lollar Green, who appraises fill in Granite Shoals, said she takes into account the following factors:
- The view
- Whether it’s open water, cove or channel
- Square footage of the fill
- Linear footage between the fill and what’s platted
Dudley told KXAN he did not know fill area was being appraised in neighboring communities.
Green said those who live in Highland Haven, a city in Burnet County, don’t have to worry about the issue anymore. The Highland Haven Property Owner’s Association decided to trace the ownership of the fill area back to the original heirs and worked out a resolution for all lakefront property owners to pay one set fee of $200. Now, everyone in that community holds the title to their lakefront and land underwater to the original river bed.
How to protect yourself
To avoid the unknown when buying or selling lakefront property, experts advise people to get a survey so they know what they own. Then they can decide how they want to proceed.
Highland Lakes Title said it does not force people to buy the fill and lake bed, but if someone wants to insure the title, it is a necessary step.
David Barer, Richie Bowes, Ben Friberg, Rachel Garza and Josh Hinkle contributed to this report.