February 1, 2021 is set to be a big day for Sark and his people with the coming into force of the long-awaited Land Reform (Sark) Act of 2019 (the “LawThe law will make sweeping changes to the principles of land ownership in Sark – principles that have been around for more than 400 years.
The law will provide the framework by which Sark’s forty buildings can be subdivided into smaller plots which can be transferred, transferred by will and / or mortgaged. It will also mortgage leasehold rights to land with a term of twenty years or more.
What is accommodation?
In 1565, Sark was named noble fief by Elizabeth I. The Jersey citizen Helier de Carteret was named lord in exchange for maintaining the defense of the island.
To meet this requirement, de Carteret divided most of the island into forty plots of land, called buildings, reserving a small parcel of land for himself. He rented these buildings to forty families, on the condition that each family build and maintain a house on their building and ensure that it is protected by a man armed with a musket.
Why can’t the dwellings be divided?
Over time, housing has fragmented. Several families divided their building between the children and the land was sold or mortgaged to neighbors.
Amid fears that the buildings would be subdivided into plots too small to live there, Lord Philippe II asked Jacques I to intervene.
Jacques I obliges himself to do so, by delivering the letters patent of 1611, which restore the forty original plots and confirm that the buildings cannot be legally subdivided or mortgaged. Instead, a building had to be either sold or left to its owner’s eldest son in its entirety.
How do residents of Sark currently own property?
To date, the forty buildings cannot be subdivided into smaller plots of land and the real estate in Sark cannot be mortgaged.
Property owners in Sark can only rent all or part of that property to the owner of the building, or purchase one of the few freehold properties located outside of a building.
Without the ability to mortgage Sark’s real estate, anyone wishing to buy property on the island must be a cash buyer or have borrowed funds secured on assets elsewhere.
What will the law change?
The law makes the subdivision, cession and mortgage of buildings legal – thus nullifying the letters patent of 1611 – and provides a framework within which these new principles of land ownership will operate.
By law, for a subdivision of a building to be transferred, the transfer document must:
- clearly identify the boundaries of the property;
- have attached a plan indicating the limits, with measurements and / or GPS coordinates; and
- be consented by the seller and the buyer to the Court of Sark.
He also establishes a register of charges (called the “Book of Obligations and Recorded Acts”), on which all charges against Sark’s property will be recorded by the clerk.
In addition to providing the framework for charges to be recorded on buildings (or their subdivisions), the law also allows the charging of leasehold interests on Sark’s real estate if (i) the term of the lease is twenty years or more or (ii) if it is less than twenty years, the lease is renewable so that the overall duration over two successive terms is greater than 20 years. These mortgages will be entered in a separate register kept by the clerk.
Is the law good for Sark?
These changes are very welcome as they will give future landowners in Sark more options in terms of land ownership and mean that acquiring property in Sark is more feasible for more people.
The possibility of mortgaging a property on the island opens up many opportunities and allows those who already reside there to raise capital to buy more land or improve their current property, while the possibility for some Sarkees to be able to negotiate the Buying freehold title to their current leasehold property with their landlord gives them the ability to secure their position.
As such, the changes are likely to attract more newcomers to the island, which has not been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and shows that Sark is very open for business.
The status quo of land ownership in Sark has stood the test of time – some four hundred years – and is an enduring example of feudal law on the island. While some may bemoan the impending reforms like a further erosion of the feudal Sark, the changes will feel well overdue for many of the islanders today.
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