Retirement village owner uses squatters' rights in court bid to claim Sydney property

The operator of a private retirement village attempted to stop a woman taking possession of her deceased grandparents’ land on the fringes of Sydney, claiming it as their own using squatters’ rights.

© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Samantha Manchee/AAP

Australian Retirement Holdings were using the block of land, owned by Monica Pritchard and her husband, Arthur Pritchard, until their deaths in 1990, as part of construction of a multimillion-dollar development past Campbelltown in south-western Sydney.

The land remained in the names of Monica and Arthur until 2019, when a granddaughter became the administrator of her grandmother’s estate.

Related: ‘All of us are struggling’: regional Australia’s aged care homes strain to stay viable

The land sits next to a large new retirement village development named Mount Gilead Estate, now owned by Australian Retirement Holdings. Construction of the retirement village began in 2006 and the developer plans to include 840 “serviced self-care dwellings”, a community facility building, and 270 hostel units across two buildings.

© Photograph: Samantha Manchee/AAP Australian Retirement Holdings failed in its legal bid to claim adverse possession, otherwise known as squatters’ rights, of land next to Mount Gilead Estate.

From about 2014, the company began using a road that cut through the Pritchard family’s land to access the development site, and has since built new roadways, begun clearing vegetation from the block, and erected signs warning the public to stay off the land.

Last year, the granddaughter travelled from her home on NSW’s central coast to erect a sign on the land reading “Private. Keep Out”. The sign included the details of her solicitor.

Australian Retirement Holdings then launched proceedings in the NSW supreme court claiming adverse possession, otherwise known as squatters’ rights, of the land.

To succeed, it had to convince the court it had exercised exclusive possession of the land for a continuous period of 12 years.

The NSW supreme court found last week that it had failed to do so.

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The company argued it was using the road and the land frequently for the construction, had cleared the block, and placed “obvious signs at the gate warning that the land is a construction zone and requiring persons to report to the site office”.

But it was also required to prove that the company responsible for the Gilead development before it, named Viceroy Gilead, had also exclusively used the land between 2009 and 2013.

ARH argued its predecessors had placed a padlock on a gate. But no signs were put up during this time and a fence was left in a dilapidated state.

“Any occupier who wanted to assert exclusive possession of the land would have needed to repair the fence, at least in a manner that would clearly delineate the land and convey to trespassers that the land was privately owned,” Justice Stephen Robb wrote.

A trail from a nearby reserve allowed hikers, mountain bike riders, and likely motorcyclists to frequently cross the block in both directions.

“There is no evidence that any practical steps were taken to exclude strangers from the Land.”

Because ARH failed to prove its predecessors had secured the land for their private use, it failed to show a 12-year period of continuous exclusive use, meaning the claim for squatters’ rights failed.

ARH was approached for comment.

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