Rembrandt Dittrich has 60 days to vacate property on Hassel Island where his father lived and worked for 60 years, V.I. District Court Chief Judge Robert Molloy ruled on Tuesday.
Dittrich, son of the late Manfred Dittrich, a beloved sailmaker who lived on the island from 1956 until his death in June 2016, said the 4.96-acre parcel where his father ran his business and raised his family was now his, claimed under the legal principle of “adverse possession,” and the property should go to his heirs, according to documents filed in the case.
However, Molloy ruled Tuesday that any claim to adverse possession was negated by the fact that Manfred Dittrich signed a special use permit with the National Park Service when it acquired about 95 percent of Hassel Island from the Paiewonsky family in 1982.
While Rembrandt Dittrich claimed the permit was akin to a business license, not a rental or lease payment, Molloy disputed the logic of that argument, asking why anyone would pay the federal government for permission to operate a business on their own property.
Moreover, under V.I. Code Manfred Dittrich would have had to make a claim for adverse possession within 20 years of occupying the land, and prior to the NPS acquiring the warranty deed, and there is absolutely no record that he did so, Molloy said.
Instead, Manfred Dittrich paid $200 a month to the NPS for 32 ½ years under a special use permit that clearly stated it was not transferable without the permission of the park service, Molloy said.
Peter Lynch, Rembrandt Dittrich’s attorney, said Manfred Dittrich signed the permit and paid the monthly fee only to avoid a confrontation.
Anyone who knew Manfred Dittrich knew “he was a dealmaker rather than a confrontational person,” said Lynch. Further, he said, regardless of what happened after 1982 and the special use permit, the property was already subject to an equitable interest by the Dittrich family.
However, Molloy said there is no evidence that Manfred Dittrich gave notice to the government about his claim in 1982 when it took possession of Hassel Island, located a short dinghy ride from St. Thomas.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joycelyn Hewlett said that in fact, Rembrandt Dittrich tried to continue to pay the $200 per month after his father’s death, but the NPS refused his checks. Emails also show that when the park service asked him in September 2016 to vacate the property by that December, Dittrich delayed the process by saying he had a new location but needed time and assistance to move, she said.
Rembrandt Dittrich was “stringing along the park service by saying he had a new location and required assistance,” said Hewlett. “When that ran out – that’s when he claimed title to the property” and continued to attempt to delay the process, she said.
“The fact is, the defendant has no right to the title of the property,” said Hewlett.
Molloy agreed, initially ordering Dittrich to vacate the property within 30 days of Sept. 28. However, Lynch said Dittrich is currently on the mainland dealing with a family matter and that it would be a hardship to move so quickly.
“This has been his home since his birth in 1978,” said Lynch, and removing his many personal and business possessions will take time.
Hewlett said the government would not oppose granting Dittrich a 60-day period to vacate the property, and that she would check whether the National Park Service’s initial offer of assistance to move the family’s possessions off the island still stands.
Should Dittrich fail to move by Nov. 27, the U.S. Marshal Service will remove him from the property, according to Molloy’s judgment.
Speaking after the hearing, Lynch said the passage of time worked against the Dittrich family claim, absent a legal paper trail or a will.
“It was an uphill battle from the start. Most eyewitnesses have faded into the past … we simply couldn’t present enough evidence of adverse possession,” he said.
Lynch said he doubted Dittrich will appeal Tuesday’s judgment.
“It’s just the end of an era,” said Lynch.