DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Looking through a chain link fence along Dowdy Ferry Road in South Dallas, all Joel Potasznik can do is stare at his 51 acres.
The 71-year-old retired physician owns the property and is required to pay taxes on it but for the past two years, he has been forbidden by the Dallas County Fire Marshal to step foot on his land.
On September 4, 2015, the county fire marshal’s office served a search warrant at his property.
According to court records, investigators found evidence of “illegal dumping” on the property including steel rebar, plastic pipes, batteries, discarded tires and other hazardous materials.
That day the fire marshal placed his own locks on the gate of Potasznik’s property and posted a “no trespassing” sign.
He ordered everyone off the property. The order remains in effect more than two years later.
However, Dallas County has not charged Potasznik nor anyone else associated with the property with a crime.
When Potasznik asked Fire Marshal Robert De Los Santos how he can get his property back, he said the fire marshal’s office did not give him an answer.
“They don’t say,” Potasznik explained. “That was the reason I had to file a lawsuit against them.”
De Los Santos told the CBS 11 I-Team he could not comment on the situation because of the pending litigation.
The Dallas County District Attorney’s Office told the I-Team the same thing that it could not comment on the matter.
“Innocent until proven guilty is out the window,” Potasznik said. “The whole constitutional process is upside down.”
Potasznik rented out his land to four businesses, including one that fills in the old gravel pits on the property with clean-fill. All four businesses closed or relocated after the county seized the property.
Potasznik purchased the property twenty years ago as an investment for retirement but with no access, he said the county has taken away his source of income and destroyed his property’s value.
“Unfortunately, it remains to me an unbelievable story that I am a reluctant part,” Potasznik said.
The I-Team discovered what happened to Potasznik was set into motion at a December 2014 Dallas County Commissioners Court meeting.
At the meeting, county commissioners voted to update the county’s fire code. This gave the fire marshal, for the first time, the authority to inspect businesses.
Eight months later, on August 13, 2015, the Dallas County Fire Marshal’s Office inspected Potasznik’s 51-acre property along Dowdy Ferry Road.
The inspection report that day showed no violations, but at the bottom the report notes “permits are needed to continue filling.”
Two days later, Potasznik filed for a permit. He said he never heard back from the county and assumed everything was okay.
Three weeks after the inspection, De Los Santos showed up at Potasznik’s property with a search warrant.
In an interview that day with a local Spanish TV station, De Los Santos said his office was cracking down on illegal businesses.
No one has been allowed back on the property since.
Potasznik denies any organized illegal dumping activity taking place on his property but said if one of his tenants was doing something illegal, without his knowledge, he wants to fix it.
The landowner, however, said he cannot do that as long as he’s locked out of his own property.
Jonathan Bridges, a law professor at UNT Dallas College of Law, said what has happened to Potasznik may seem unfair but is likely legal.
“I tell my students every semester when it comes to property law, the government can take your stuff,” Bridges explained.
The law professor said law enforcement agencies can seize property if it is suspected to be involved in a crime, even if the crime is a misdemeanor like illegal dumping.
There’s also few limitations on long the government can hold one’s property as long as the investigation is pending.
Bridges said, “This area of law does seem like one that is pretty unregulated and one that creates a lot of unfairness to the property owner.”
“This is wrong,” Potasznik said. “If they are doing it to me, they are doing it to someone else or are going to do it to someone else and I’m not going to give it up easy as long as I’m alive.”