Pinellas examines its role in land sales
By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
Alice Beehner looks out at the pink fence looming over her back yard and seethes at Don Connolly.
It was Connolly who bought the pond and a strip of land behind Beehner's lot at a tax sale, then put up the fence when Beehner and her neighbors refused to pay $30,000 each to buy the pond.
But she, and other homeowners tangling with Connolly, also are angry at Pinellas County.
"It should never have happened," Beehner said. "They should have contacted us and said, look, your property is up for sale. Go bid on it. What would that have taken? A form letter."
Had Beehner lived in Hillsborough or Pasco counties, it might have worked that way. Tax collectors there say they already notify property owners when unusual parcels of land, such as the Tarpon Woods pond behind Beehner's home or slivers that could block access to someone's land, come up for sale because the taxes weren't paid.
Pinellas County Tax Collector Diane Nelson is calling for a law to require such notices. But County Commission Chairwoman Barbara Sheen Todd doesn't think Nelson should wait for a law. She asked Nelson this week to begin notifying property owners immediately.
"I'd like to start doing that now," Todd said. "I don't think we have to wait for the Legislature."
Nelson said she is working with other county officials and will review Todd's request. She said she couldn't have prevented Connolly from purchasing the land but that she understands Beehner's anger.
"Nobody should have to go through this. This is not why you live here in Florida and enjoy the beach," Nelson said. "I feel bad for these people. If we can do anything in government, you can bet your sweet bippy I'll be out there for them."
In Pasco, notifying adjacent property owners has been policy for about two decades, said Tax Collector Mike Olson. When a tax deed application comes into his office, a field representative goes out to locate the property, check for any real estate signs and talk to neighbors.
"We go above and beyond the call of duty to do everything we can to notify property owners that that's going to occur," Olson said. In a situation similar to the one in Pinellas, "We would have sent someone out there, taken a picture and probably knocked on somebody's door."
In Hillsborough, officials try to flag properties that include common areas or submerged lands, said Charlotte Luke, director of tax and licenses. About seven to 10 such properties come up each year, she said, and county staff members notify adjacent property owners.
"We try to make sure of that," she said. "The statute doesn't require that kind of notification. We do that as a courtesy."
But in Pinellas County, Nelson does not make such notifications. Neither do property tax collectors in Sarasota, Manatee and Orange counties. Both Nelson and Ken van Assenderp, lawyer for the Florida Tax Collectors Association, said tax collectors could get in legal trouble if they notify some neighbors and not others.
"We have to define what that means," van Assenderp said. "Is it right next door ... or maybe the one who's a block down the road?"
The law spells out certain people, such as the property owner, who must be notified, but doesn't mention neighboring owners.
Nelson said she's afraid that if she notifies some owners, others will complain, "You notified X, why didn't you notify me? I'm just a block down the road."
Besides, she said, notices of tax deed sales, as well as sales of tax certificates, are published in local newspapers and on the office's Web site, www.taxcollect.com.
"We're trying to make every effort to let people know," she said.
But Beehner pointed out that such publications often go unseen by the general public. The latest list was published not in a daily newspaper but in a smaller weekly publication. County officials say they choose the paper that submits the lowest bid.
Geoff Apthorp is the spokesman for a group of 61 South Pasadena homeowners who discovered that Connolly bought submerged land next to their waterfront lots. Connolly bought the land for $2,000 and is asking for $5,000 from each homeowner to sell it back.
"They knew this was a potential problem over a year ago," he said. "They didn't really take steps to stop it from happening. Now we're dealing with the legacy of that."
About two years ago, a county staffer came to Jim Bennett, chief assistant county attorney, after noticing that a few people had bought retention ponds at tax deed sales by mistake.
Bennett said last week that lawmakers weren't interested then in passing a bill that would have addressed the issue by changing the tax liability of such parcels. But after discussing it with other county staffers, Bennett said, he now remembers it differently.
Bennett said he talked to officials from several other counties, who told him they hadn't had similar problems. He also talked to the county's former lobbyist, who said lawmakers wouldn't be interested because the problem wasn't widespread and the legislative session already was half-over.
At the time, Bennett said, the problem seemed more academic. No one anticipated Connolly's actions.
"This is the first time we've had strategic purchasing," he said.
Ray Williams, tax collector in Manatee County, said homeowners should look elsewhere before assigning blame.
"The people who are upset with the county, they should have more of a beef with the title companies," he said. "They probably should have known their property didn't go right down to the (Tarpon Woods) lake."
Todd said it's not fair to say Nelson should have notified property owners.
"Should have, would have, could have," she said. "Who could have imagined something like this would come up? He wasn't even in my nightmares."
Pinellas needs to do everything it can to help the homeowners tangling with Connolly, Todd said. She has asked county lawyers to look at possible zoning violations or other legal liabilities Connolly might have, or for any other legal remedies to help the owners.
"It's nothing but legalized extortion," she said. "I don't think he should be permitted to get away with it. The county's got to be aggressive to solve it. ... I promise you, we're going to look for every possible opportunity to make life miserable for him."
Nelson, County Administrator Steve Spratt and other county officials will meet this week to talk about options.
"I want to make sure that if we comply in one area, we're not going to hurt somebody else," she said.
While they map out strategy, tax sales will continue. A sale set for Wednesday includes a parcel of land in Tarpon Springs, south of a city park.
Those who make their living dealing with submerged land issues say there might be enough blame to go around the block twice. The Pinellas situation has become fodder for water cooler chat -- and more than a few chuckles -- in the state capital.
"To what extent were the people who bought the lots put on notice that the lake was a separate tract?" asked Douglas Rillstone, an environmental lawyer in Tallahassee. "It could be that the lake was to be conveyed to the homeowners association. What rights do the homeowners have against the original developer?"
Furthermore, he wondered whether homeowners had a drainage easement to the lake that was not wiped out by the tax sale, and if Connolly had obligations to maintain the lake. Perhaps, Rillstone speculated, the Southwest Florida Water Management District would consider the fence a "dam," blocking drainage -- a structure that might require a water management district permit.
"The problem is that it very well could be perfectly legitimate," he said.
Acey Stinson, a manager in the state Department of Environmental Protection's division of state lands, said the Pinellas situation has prompted a good bit of head-shaking and incredulous exclamations.
"We all read it and had a good time with it," said Stinson. "We just couldn't believe it."
Stinson said the division has received several requests, including one from the Gulfport city attorney, for research on ownership of submerged lands.
"We've been routing a lot of calls about that issue to our title section," Stinson said.
-- Staff writers Alicia Caldwell and Jennifer Goldblatt contributed to this report.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
local news desks