It started with an application to build a bike shed in front of a shop.
Now, after a legal fight that originated back in 1955, an 87-year-old shop owner has triumphed over the City of Fremantle in a battle that is set to land the council with a legal bill of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Immigrant businessman Antonio Iraci bought the set of shops on High Street in 1994, and soon after began a series of clashes with the council.
In the opening to a ruling last Thursday that brought the process to a close, Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Martin referred to the raft of legal complexities dating back to 1955 that affected the strip of land in front of Mr Iraci’s shops.
“A pedestrian casually strolling along the Fremantle pavement outside the shopping centre at 142 High Street today would be oblivious to the underlying litigious turmoil surrounding approximately 330 square metres of ground space at their feet,” he said.
The strip of land is currently occupied by a footpath, a kerb and a loading bay.
Dispute brought to a head by a bike shelter
Mr Iraci always maintained that when he purchased the land in 1994, under his company Imago Holdings, the documentation clearly detailed that the disputed area fell within his title.
The shop owner applied to the City of Fremantle to use some of that space to build an undercover bike shelter capable of housing 30 to 40 bicycles.
The application was knocked back by the city, which argued the space had become public land in 1962 after a 1955 by-law issued by the city pushed the “building lines” back from the road.
At the time, the buildings at 142 High Street contravened the new borders, but it was accepted that the rule would be applied only once the space was freed up.
The buildings on 142 High Street were demolished in 1962 and the current buildings were erected later that year.
They sat further back from the road, meeting the requirements of the 1955 by-law.
It was from that point in 1962 that the City of Fremantle argued the 330 square metres of contested space was no longer part of the title for 142 High Street.
Land went to Crown, not city
But in his ruling, Justice Martin found the 1960 Local Government Act, which came into effect before the demolition and rebuild, meant ownership of the freed-up strip of land did not transfer to the City of Fremantle, but rather to the Crown.
Justice Martin ruled that the City of Fremantle had not had the power to act as a de facto agent for the Crown in its subsequent attempts to exercise rights over the land.
“Nothing I can ascertain would suggest the City of Fremantle is at liberty to put itself in the position of the Crown in right of the state of Western Australia for the purposes of advancing submissions on behalf of the Crown concerning the Crown’s ownership of the disputed area,” he said.
“There is a further sub-issue problem arising here in that, as is obvious, the current litigation is between only the City of Fremantle and Imago. The Crown in right of the state of Western Australia is not a party to the present litigation.
“That, in my view, is a significant omission.”
The Crown never formally acknowledged its ownership of the 330-square-metre stretch of public space and the property title was never amended to reflect that ownership had transferred to the Crown.
Subsequently, when Mr Iraci took over the title in 1994, it included the disputed space.
Justice Martin ruled the Crown forfeited its ownership of the 330-square-metre strip by failing to alter the title before Mr Iraci took ownership.
‘A man’s home is his castle’
Cornerstone Legal, which represented Mr Iraci, said the ruling that ultimately found its client owned the strip of land had “upheld the sanctity of a man’s home as his castle”.
They estimated the legal bills for both sides that the city would have to pay could reach more than half a million dollars.
“I hate to think what the city has spent over the last 20 years to try to get my land,” Mr Iraci said in the statement.
“When I bought the land I carefully checked the titles to see what I was buying. I never realised I was stepping into a legal battle with the city just to defend my titles.
“I have always been willing to work with the city. It’s a pity that so much money and effort has been put into a court battle to remove land from my titles.
“I came to this country with nothing and worked hard all my life. I could not just sit there and let the city remove some of my land from my titles. I thought such a thing only happened in other countries.
“I look forward to building my bicycle shelter for the benefit of cyclists coming to my shopping centre on this piece of land.”
The City of Fremantle has been contacted for comment.