The playground near the elementary school in Zearing is locked, making it unaccessible to children or residents in the small town of about 550 people in northeastern Story County.

It’s part of a legal entanglement the Colo-NESCO school district has found itself in with an entity named Mr. Mague Holdings LLC of Ames. A represenative of that entity, a Des Moines attorney named David Eklin, declined comment when asked about the situation.

What’s going on is this: The Colo-NESCO school district bought the parcel of land in June 2013 for $12,000, according to a statement from Superintendent Steve Gray.

In his statement, Gray said the district recently learned there was $248 in unpaid taxes on the property at the time, and that without the district’s knowledge, the property was sold on a quit claim deed. The buyer? Mr. Mague Holdings of Ames, according to records on the property site Beacon.

In his statement, Gray said the company now holding the deed to the property has locked the playground, and was asking $15,000 for the propery. In an email from Gray, he said he was informed Thursday that the asking price for the property has jumped to $50,000.

He said neither he nor other district officials had any knowledge of the tax sale, and could find no record of notificationin in 2014. According to Beacon records, the sale occurred May 12, 2017.

Whatever the case, Gray stated in his email that the district is questioning the legality “of the transfer of deed from a public entity and are hopeful that the property will be rightfully returned to the district.”

“It is disappointing that the playground is currently chained/locked from the residents of Zearing by the deed holder, particularly when a portion of the property within the fence is clearly owned by the District and is not in dispute,” Gray wrote.

He said the district is working with attorneys to resolve the matter.

The legal wrangling wasn’t settling well with residents in Zearing Thursday afternoon.

Dan Mack and his wife, Brittni, have two children who will start school at the elementary building in Zearing this fall, and they hope the situation is resolved quickly.

“We live 10 seconds away from it (the playground) and take the kids there all the time,” Dan said.

Brittni said, “I hope they can resolve it and get it back to the school using it, otherwise the kids don’t have anywhere to go to play.”

Dan said he doesn’t care who owns, “as long as it can be a playground and it is maintained.”

He suggested people in the close-knit community would be willing to mow it and watch out over it so children would have place to play.

Local banker Lonny Flack said he was disgusted by the dispute.

“It’s so stupid, it’s beyond description,” he said.

Flack said someone, somewhere dropped the ball, creating the legal quagmire.

“One of two things happened. Either no one looked into the background of property with a lien search or a title opinion; or an attorney did a title opinion and missed the lien. I’m guessing it was the former … here’s your check, here’s your deed,” Flack said.

“Whether it’s a car or property, you must be sure you are taking clean deed to the property.”

He called the problem “a total screw up.”

“And the problem is, we’re going to pay for it, and I can’t fault the guy a bit for wanting $50,000 for it,” Flack said.

He said investors watch tax sales to buy property in hopes of finding a deal.

“People do this for a living, that’s how they make money,” Flack said.

He said what is sad about the whole situation is that the community held fundraisers to put equipment in the playground, and now no one can use it.

Nevada Journal Editor Marlys Barker contributed to this story.