Dobson’s choice

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Helene Shue, 89, has lived in a farmhouse on a 41-acre spread in South Hanover Township, Pennsylvania, for more than 50 years. Her nephew, John Arndt, told the November 8, 2003 Harrisburg Patriot-News that her farm “means everything to her,” and that her only wish is to live her remaining days in the home she shared with her husband, Clayton, who died four years ago.

The property was formally deeded to the Shues in 1948, but county records listed only Mr. Shue on the deed. In 2001, that oversight triggered a bizarre chain of events that threatened to have Mrs. Shue’s home and farm sold at auction for less than six percent of its $800,000 appraised value. The controversy centered around a partial tax payment of $572 for 2001. County records confirm that all prior and subsequent tax bills have been paid on time and in full.

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Arndt told the Patriot-News that his aunt sought to pay the $572 on time, but her check was returned with a form letter from the Dauphin County tax bureau insisting on payment by certified check or money order. The letter, however, was addressed only to her late husband, and so fell through the proverbial cracks.

When the proper payment was not received by March 2002, county officials initiated proceedings to either collect the $572 delinquency or sell the property at a sheriff’s auction. A county spokesman told the November 7 Patriot-News that three certified letters (also addressed to Clayton Shue only) were returned unopened; that other correspondence sent by regular mail went unanswered; and that two notices had been posted on a farmhouse door.

“We don’t investigate who the owners of those properties are,” the spokesman told the newspaper. “We had no way of knowing whether there was a problem on their end or whether they were ignoring it.” The county does have “a very strict procedure we must follow that includes 12 notifications. We followed the letter of the law to a T.”

Yet as the Patriot-News editorialized on November 9, “the return of certified mail unopened should have triggered a personal visit by a tax official to establish that the notice of a tax sale had been received and that the owner understood the consequences, as well as the avenues of appeal and assistance….”

On September 25, Mrs. Shue’s farm, which is near land being developed for residential housing, was sold at auction for $15,000 to Middle Paxton Township developer Philip Dobson.

Arndt told the Patriot-News that he and Mrs. Shue were unaware of the sale until an anonymous caller tipped him off on the evening of November 3. He immediately hired an attorney, who three days later filed a petition in Dauphin County Court to stop the transaction. After the Patriot-News reported the story, county offices were swamped with calls urging that something be done to allow Mrs. Shue to keep her home.

Philip Dobson had no idea when he bought the property “that there was an 89-year-old widow living there. I found that out when I was reading the newspaper.” He told the November 11 Patriot-News that “under no circumstances would that lady ever be moved out of that home, no matter what happens.”

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The county chief of staff described the situation as “horrible,” and insisted that the county wanted “to do whatever we can to remedy it.” He arranged a meeting between Arndt and Dobson on November 13, at which time Dobson agreed to give back the land. The county subsequently agreed to reimburse Dobson.

Dobson and Arndt went together to tell Mrs. Shue that her house and farm were secure. “Oh, my … I can’t believe it,” she effused while hugging them both. “I won’t forget this day.”

Explaining his decision to return the land, Dobson told the November 14 Patriot-News that “it was a no-brainer, a moral issue, not a legal one. The property should be returned to her.” He added, “I got something better than a million-dollar property. I got a hug from a little old lady. That was worth more than anyone could imagine.”