It started with an unusual light bill.
Last February, Nelson Miller was confused when he got an electricity bill for his cottage. The 83-year-old rarely used his rural Nova Scotia cottage in winter.
“So I called [the utility]. And they said, ‘The people that bought your property want you to pay the light bill,'” Miller recalled.
“Pardon? What’s going on? My property is not for sale.”
In an unfortunate series of events involving taxes and a decades-old unregistered deed, the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s had sold the land without his knowledge.
In 1979, Miller bought two parcels of land on East Loon Lake, about 55 kilometres north of Sheet Harbour, N.S. He built a small cottage on the roughly 35,500 square-foot property.
But Miller never registered his deed — something he realizes now he should have done at the time. However, Miller said it just wasn’t a priority because it was a busy time as he and his late wife, Karen, both worked while raising their young children.
“This wouldn’t have happened if I’d have registered it,” Miller said.
‘Part of heaven’
Although Miller said he always knew there were two parcels on the property — a larger one beside the road where he built the family cottage and a smaller lakeside one — he paid taxes to St. Mary’s municipality for both parcels under one account.
Over the coming decades the Millers enjoyed their land and cottage, spending most weekends swimming, boating, being in the woods and eating home-cooked meals.
“It was like part of heaven almost,” Miller said with a quiet laugh.
The cottage is sold
Because Miller hadn’t registered the deed, the municipality did not know he had purchased the land from the previous owner. In 2015, for the first time, the municipality started trying to collect taxes on the larger roadside parcel of land in a new account. But the tax bills went to a long-defunct post office box used by the previous owner.
Eventually the property was put up for a tax sale and bought by Luke and Christina Collings in June 2021.
When the Collings drove out to get a look at the property before buying it, they were surprised to find a cottage on it — because the tax sale advertised the property as “vacant land.”
But the sale went through with no one coming forward. Luke said when they finally got a look at the cottage, it appeared “pretty tidy” with clothes, personal belongings, current mail — and the electricity was still connected.
“That was our trigger. Those things all together, just didn’t sit right and we knew something was up,” Christina said in an interview alongside Luke from their home in Boylston, N.S., in Guysborough County.
The Collings eventually connected with Miller.
Although Miller was at first in “disbelief,” Luke talked him through everything that had happened. When the Collings found out Miller had his original deed, and his wife Karen had died very recently, the couple knew they had to return the cottage.
“I couldn’t sleep at night knowing I’d stolen someone’s property,” Christina said. “It was the right thing to do. I mean, any decent human would have worked it out.”
When Luke said he wanted to return the cottage, Miller was “elated.”
“A lot of people … would have said ‘no way, I bought it and I’m going to keep it,'” Miller said. “I owe him, big time.”
The Collings, Miller and the St. Mary’s municipality all hired lawyers and eventually reached a legal settlement in May 2022.
The municipality paid the Collings back the $28,893 they paid in the tax sale plus legal expenses and interest, while the Collings agreed to give up their interest to Miller and he signed a new deed.
Miller agreed to pay the remaining $2,272 in outstanding property taxes to the municipality.
The Collings feel strongly that St. Mary’s should have done more, and triple-checked whether the taxes Miller was paying on the lakeside parcel might connect to the property next door.
CBC asked St. Mary’s if this case has changed their tax sale practices, but did not hear back by publication.
Neighbour avoided tax sale
But Dartmouth-based lawyer Matthew Moir of Weldon McInnis, who often deals with property matters, said it appears St. Mary’s followed their legal responsibilities under the Municipal Government Act. Any searches the municipality would have done on the outstanding taxes would have never brought up Miller’s name, Moir said.
The property also had not yet been migrated from the province’s original registry of deeds system into the new post-2005 land registry system, which Moir said might have caught the issue.
Back at East Loon Lake, Miller said his neighbours have since used his experience as a cautionary tale and checked their own deeds and paperwork.
One neighbour luckily realized at the last minute their taxes hadn’t been paid for three years — and caught the error before the land was put up in a tax sale.