Round one of the federal case over who owns Wisteria Island — the Bernstein family or the U.S. government — goes to the private owners, who for the past 45 years have been paying taxes on the 21 acres of uninhabited but valuable land in the middle of Key West Harbor.
U.S. District Court Judge Jose E. Martinez denied the feds’ motion to dismiss the Bernsteins’ suit, which challenged the claim made last year by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management that the federal government is the rightful owner of the spoil island created at the turn of the 20tth century by a Navy dredging project.
The bureau got involved only after pressed by opponents of the Bernstein’s proposed luxury development on the island. The opponents had dug up old documents that showed that ownership was in question at the time of the first private sale in 1952.
The Bernsteins’ F.E.B. Corp. sued under the federal Quiet Title Act statute. Since the late Ben Bernstein purchased the land in 1967, the family had paid all of the island’s real-estate taxes with Monroe County; filed federal and state income-tax returns disclosing its ownership; worked with state and federal governmental agencies in connection with efforts to develop the island; and been the sole party maintaining and preserving the island, which included the installation of “no trespassing” signs.
The complicated case is set for a non-jury trial in March 2014.
“Well, in the context of having to go to court to prove ownership of my own property, I’m pretty happy,” said F.E.B. Corp. President Roger Bernstein, a Miami attorney. “But the government is wasting a lot of taxpayers’ money pursuing it. The Navy says they don’t own it or want it. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have said it’s not in their reserve and are in no position to manage it. Maybe the IRS wants it.”