Who has rights to submerged lands?
By ROBERT FARLEY, AMY WIMMER and JEFF TESTERMAN
SOUTH PASADENA -- Frank Van Bibber spent $25,000 last year on a state-of-the-art dock. It has two boat lifts, space for three small boats and a shingled roof to cover his 28-foot cabin cruiser.
Now, Van Bibber's not even sure he owns it.
"I've wanted to live on the water my whole life, and I finally get a chance to do it," Van Bibber, 49, said Tuesday, "and along comes Don Connolly."
Connolly, a 44-year-old Valrico man with two decades of money troubles, paid $2,000 at a tax deed sale in November for a stretch of submerged land behind 61 waterfront homes near South Pasadena.
He initially said he would sell the land to individual homeowners for $100,000 each. He has since told a lawyer for one of the owners that he will lower his price to $5,000.
The situation mirrors a problem in the East Lake subdivision of Tarpon Woods, where Connolly paid $848 at a November tax deed sale for a 4-acre lake and a small ring of land surrounding it. He offered to sell the land behind each house for $30,000. When residents balked, Connolly began building a fence to obstruct their views of the lake.
County officials on Tuesday scrambled to learn whether Connolly is planning similar tactics in other back yards. The property appraiser's office is mapping all 50 properties Connolly owns in Pinellas. It also is looking into other "common element parcels," such as retention ponds, lakes, medians or recreation areas.
"This thing has caught on fire pretty fast," said Assistant County Property Appraiser Pam Dubov.
Indeed. Alice Beehner, an East Lake homeowner, was inundated Tuesday with calls from well-wishers and media inquiries. Today, she is scheduled to appear on Good Morning America.
'I am so sad'
Tammy Apthorp, a real estate agent and homeowner, was the first to alert her neighborhood that Connolly owned the submerged land.
She was selling a nearby house when Connolly called to say she should inform prospective buyers that they would not own the land beneath the dock.
Connolly already owned it.
"My question is, why did the county even consider selling?" said Laszlo Szerenyi, one of the homeowners in a neighborhood where the waterfront homes range from $400,000 to $800,000. "I don't think anybody would buy this land except for mischief."
Apthorp and her husband, Geoff, spread the word in their neighborhood, hoping to get residents to band together. The neighbors plan to meet Tuesday.
"I am so sad for everybody because it's such an exploitive scam," said Geoff Apthorp. "It really takes advantage of a seam in the law."
Connolly is not the first person to purchase common-area property at a tax deed sale, then try to sell it back to homeowners.
"We saw some things like this happening about two years ago," said Jim Bennett, assistant county attorney, "but it was a series of isolated problems."
The problems occur, Bennett said, when developers or homeowners associations stop paying taxes. Two years ago, county officials approached legislators with a plan to attach the tax liability of common areas to all of the homeowners in a development or condominium, rather than to an association.
"It didn't get any legs in the Legislature," Bennett said. Maybe now it will, he said.
Representatives of the county attorney's office, the property appraiser, the tax collector and the clerk of courts plan will meet next week to discuss options, Dubov said. Likely, she said, it will require a change in state laws.
"We're hoping to come up with something to bring to our legislative delegation to prevent this from happening in the future," Dubov said.
Pinellas Tax Collector Diane Nelson plans to push for legislation that would require abutting property owners to be notified before a tax deed sale.
State Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, said his staff called the state judiciary committee to research the issue. "I want to look into this to see if there's any way we can help these people out," he said.
While county officials sought to prevent future problem, homeowners at the East Lake subdivision vowed to fight Connolly.
Real estate attorney Tim Johnson, whose firm was contacted by the homeowners in East Lake and South Pasadena, said there are several legal avenues the homeowners could pursue, including one that gives property owners the right to continue using property they have used for a long time.
In South Pasadena, the homeowners will probably argue that they are entitled to use submerged lands and waters abutting their property.
"It's clear to me that (Connolly) systematically purchased property that has value to the neighbors," Johnson said. "What he's doing is capitalism at its worst."
Courthouse records reveal Connolly as a businessman with two decades worth of money troubles, climaxed by his second bankruptcy two years ago.
In the early 1980s, when Connolly was running his own construction company in Hillsborough County, the IRS filed a tax lien against him for $7,223.
After a dissolution of marriage in 1983, Connolly fell behind in child support payments for his 6-year-old son and was ordered to increase payments to $350 a month to catch up.
For reasons that are not clear, Connolly filed for and received a name change from a Hillsborough judge in 1985. Saying he had been born in Memphis to Noel Charles Weaver and Wanda Rose Grace, Connolly attested that he had no money judgments or felony convictions and was granted a legal name change from Donnie Clay Weaver to Donnie Clay Connolly.
In 1989, Connolly filed bankruptcy under Chapter 7 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Act, which requires liquidation of assets. About that time, Connolly and his wife, Marcia, lost a home in Brandon through foreclosure.
Connolly later worked as a trailer salesman with Navigator Aluminum Boat Trailers, but piled up debt in the business that led to a second bankruptcy in 1998.
Asking for another Chapter 7 liquidation, Connolly said he had an unknown amount of debt. Later, more than 50 creditors filed claims in the case. The biggest obligation by far was from the state of Florida for sales and use taxes totaling $847,992.
Connolly and his wife, whose own bankruptcy filing had been consolidated with his, were granted a discharge of debts from the bankruptcy court in January 2000.
Before the discharge, however, the court ordered a number of Connolly's possessions auctioned off to pay creditors.
A mink coat, a ladies diamond wedding ring, a pressure washer, an antique cream separator and a smattering of other items brought in only a few hundred dollars.
-- Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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