When Tracey Anne Higgins squared off against a wealthy retirement village operator trying to use squatter’s rights to claim ownership of her family’s land, she knew one thing for certain.
“I said early in the piece, they’re going to meet their Waterloo,” Higgins says. “They’re messing with the wrong person.”
She wasn’t wrong.
Higgins – who describes herself as “nobody special … just a mum and a grandma” – last week won a remarkable legal battle against retirement village developer Australian Retirement Holdings.
For years, the company has been using her family’s land, which had been vacant since the death of her grandmother in the mid-1990s, as an access route to help build its Mount Gilead Estate, a multimillion dollar property development in south-western Sydney.
“They thought I’d be dead. Or they’d never find the owner,” she said. “And then they found me … I’ve got to laugh, honestly.”
Higgins had grown up on the land and always hoped that she would move back to the block, which she said used to be picturesque, to live closer to her daughter.
“Some of the happiest memories of my life were spent out there,” she said.
Her childhood spent at the block meant she knew its boundaries, inside and out. However, it was not until 2019 that Higgins rediscovered that the land remained in her grandmother’s name.
But when she realised that ARH was using her land and she kicked up a fuss, she says the company initially ignored her.
So Higgins drove to the site from her home on NSW’s north coast and put up a sign reading: “Private. Keep Out”, including her solicitor’s details.
“That’s when I got their attention,” she says.
The company then launched a rare bid in the NSW supreme court to claim ownership of her land through what’s known as “adverse possession” or squatter’s rights.
ARH said it and the companies before it had been using the land exclusively for 12 years.
Higgins believes it was banking on her backing down.
“It’s pretty confronting because they’ve got more money than not,” she said. “So money’s no object to them. It is to me.”
“I’m nobody special. I’m just a mum and a grandma, and also my mum, she’s 86 now and it’s put her through a lot too. Dreadful.”
For ARH, it was critical to prove to the court it had taken steps to keep others off the land for 12 years.
In the earlier years, the company relied on a move by the former owner of the site, Sunrise Nominees, which padlocked an entrance gate. ARH argued the gate was closed unless access was needed by ARH or its predecessors.
But the court heard the company, in the early years, put up no signs prohibiting entry and left the fence in a dilapidated state. Members of the public used the land frequently, the court heard.
A trail from a nearby reserve allowed dog walkers, mountain bike riders and likely motorcyclists to cross the block in both directions. Neighbours from nearby Campbelltown turned up to court to give evidence that they regularly used the land and saw other strangers doing the same.
“There is no evidence that any practical steps were taken to exclude strangers from the land,” the court found.
Higgins sat in the court for four days listening to the evidence earlier this year.
“I sat there on my own. I had no backup other than my beautiful solicitor. A few times, like I said, I was coming apart and she sort of propped me up again,” she said.
The NSW supreme court last week found in Higgins’ favour and ordered ARH to pay her costs.
“To tell you the truth. If you said to me ‘would you do it again?’, I would say ‘yes, I would do it again’.”