A long-running eviction case between the National Park Service and the son of a sailmaker who occupied land on Hassel Island for 60 years is set for a hearing Tuesday in V.I. District Court on St. Thomas.
Rembrandt Dittrich, son of the late Manfred Dittrich, a beloved sailmaker who lived on the island from 1956 until his death in June 2016, claims his father owned the 4.96-acre parcel where he lived and worked by adverse possession and the property should be conveyed to his heirs, according to documents filed in the case.
The NPS claims Manfred Dittrich was only allowed to occupy the parcel under a special-use permit it issued him in 1983 after it completed the acquisition of about 95 percent of the island from the Paiewonsky family in 1982. The NPS has been trying to remove the son since his father’s death, but to no avail, according to court documents.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said the special use permit allowed Manfred Dittrich to conduct his sail-making business at a rent of $200 a month, but “expressly provided that it could not be transferred or assigned without the National Park Service’s written consent, and that no one other than the named tenant could occupy the property,” according to court documents.
Rembrandt Dittrich – who variously goes by Brandt and Brandt Lee in court documents and RemBrandtLee the Gray on his website where he has appealed for letters of support for his case – took over the sail-making business after his father’s death and claims his father gained the land by adverse possession when the Paiewonskys allowed him to live there undisturbed from 1956 to 1982.
“During this period of time in excess of fifteen years, Manfred Dittrich and not the Paiewonskys, occupied the Property. Manfred Dittrich openly worked there and resided there. Manfred Dittrich died intestate in 2016. Plaintiff has never filed an action to quiet title to the Property,” according to Rembrandt Dittrich’s discovery memorandum of April 2020.
When the son took over his father’s business, he continued to pay $200 per month to the NPS not for rent but for the business permit, according to court documents. However, the NPS refused the checks.
“The NPS has never consented in writing to the transfer or assignment of the [special use permit], to Rembrandt Dittrich or anyone else. NPS has also returned all rent checks paid by Rembrandt Dittrich to him,” according to a declaration filed in August 2019 by National Park Ranger Ludric Smith.
In September 2016, the NPS issued Dittrich a notice to quit the property by December that year, according to Smith. “Rembrandt Dittrich began to take steps to vacate the property, but because of the amount of materials that had to be removed, NPS repeatedly extended the date. As of July 2017, Rembrandt Dittrich remained on the parcel.”
The matter was further complicated by the upheaval of the twin Category 5 hurricanes of September 2017. “When NPS inspected the parcel following the hurricanes, we discovered that the building in which the sail-making business was located had lost its roof and Rembrandt Dittrich was no longer present. Because it appeared Rembrandt Dittrich was gone, NPS took no further action to remove him,” according to Smith’s declaration.
However, in February 2018, NPS discovered that Dittrich had returned to the parcel to conduct his sail-making business, said Smith. In February 2019, it issued Dittrich another notice to quit by May that year.
“NPS has been more than reasonable in its attempts to work with you and give you ample time to vacate the premises. However, you continue to occupy and use the premises without authorization,” the notice said, and warned Dittrich that if he did not leave, “the United States will initiate appropriate legal action to recover possession of the premises.”
That action has now evolved into a forcible entry and detainer, or FED – a forced eviction – which is the subject of Tuesday’s hearing.
Dittrich, who was born on St. Thomas in 1978 and grew up on the Hassel Island property, filed several affidavits in the case, including from his mother, LaRae’ Lee Phillips Dittrich.
While the Paiewonskys asked her husband to leave when they owned the island, he refused, and they never filed action to remove him, said Phillips Dittrich.
When the NPS acquired the island in 1982, “Manfred Dittrich the Sail Maker of Hassel Island made an economic decision to sign a special use permit with the government for $200 per month, rather than to take on far greater expense to fight the government over permission to run his business on Hassel Island which already belonged to him,” Phillips Dittrich wrote in her affidavit of March 2020.
“Payments under the special use permit were not for rent, but rather for operation of a business. The property has been Brandt Lee Dittrich’s residence since birth. When Manfred Dittrich the Sail Maker of Hassel Island passed away … ownership of the property remained with the Dittrich Family,” Phillips Dittrich wrote.
While the NPS says in court documents that Dittrich’s continued occupation of the property is impeding its plans for the development of Hassel Island as an attraction for residents and tourists, Dittrich said in his own affidavit that while the federal government may own the land around him, “they have no ownership interest whatsoever in our land, as their complaint states.”
“The property has been my permanent residence since birth on September 20th 1978, aside from absences to attend school, have children, and get married in Northern New York. I worked in and ultimately took over my father’s sail-making business, currently live on Hassel Island, and have something to leave to my children,” Dittrich wrote.
“The way I see this, the National Park Service and the federal government are attempting to deprive me of my property rights, including land and personal property and the tools of my trade, and eject me from my home in violation of my Constitutional rights. Their lawsuit is so much legal nonsense,” Dittrich wrote.