Pinellas pledges to tell of tax sales
By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
For one angry homeowner, it was a lake view blocked by a fence.
For another, it was having a trailer parked in her back yard, then getting sued when she had it towed.
And for others, it was the realization that their docks now were on land owned by somebody else.
Dozens of angry homeowners packed the Pinellas County Commission meeting Tuesday night to plead for help in their fight against Don Connolly, the man who has bought a lake, submerged land and other odd properties at Pinellas County tax deed sales.
Anticipating their anger, county officials made sweeping changes Tuesday to tax sale policies and promised to tell neighboring property owners before tax deed sales of such lands.
"I'm glad to hear they're doing this in the future," said Nancy Campbell, president of the civic association for Pasadena Golf Club Estates, where 61 waterfront homes now border Connolly's submerged lands. "But now it's already too late. We still have a lot of concern of what they're going to do to help the homeowners now."
Among other measures, county officials also said that they will post notices on vacant lands before tax sales and that aerial photos of the parcels will be shown on the county's cable Channel 18.
Many homeowners seemed receptive to the new measures but said they still need help with current difficulties.
"We sure could use any and all help we can get," said Pasadena homeowner William Schellhaas. "We purchased this as a retirement home."
Barbara Ross, whose parents own a home in the East Lake subdivision where Connolly is putting up a fence, asked commissioners to use the county's eminent domain powers to declare the land around the pond public and force Connolly to sell. County lawyers are studying whether they can do that.
Pinellas Park resident Darlene Cosgrove said after Tuesday's meeting that county officials should have told her the 16-feet-wide strip she thought was part of her back yard was up for sale. She said Connolly bought it and parked his trailer there.
Now, she said, she's afraid county officials may overlook her.
"I'm just hoping the little people like me aren't forgotten," she said. "It seemed to take the people with money" to get the county to take action.
But County Commission Chairman Barbara Sheen Todd told residents that the county will do everything it can to help them and to prevent future problems.
"I know many of you are angry and you are frustrated," she said. "I assure you I am as angry and frustrated as you are."
Todd and other top county officials hammered out a host of changes in a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning. Some changes are aimed at future tax sales, while others are targeted to help the homeowners already fighting Connolly.
Pinellas staff members took the first step Tuesday by telling the city of Tarpon Springs that a piece of submerged land for sale today is next to a city park.
The changes will affect almost every corner of the county: the property appraiser, tax collector, clerk of court, sheriff, county attorney and several departments that report to County Administrator Steve Spratt.
"We're clearly trying to do everything we possibly can to help the public and prevent any recurrence of this problem," Spratt said.
Spratt also defended the county, saying the broad scope of change doesn't imply that the county was negligent in the past.
"These procedures are not necessarily designed to guard against every manipulative act," he said. "If somebody wants to do something devious ... I don't think you can anticipate this kind of thing."
But some homeowners pointed to county officials who said earlier that too many "common area" lands such as neighborhood retention ponds were coming up for sale because of delinquent taxes.
"I just feel Pinellas County really let me down and sold me out," Pasadena homeowner Frank Van Bibber said. "Everyone's blaming Don Connolly, but they're the ones who sold it to him. If it hadn't been Don Connolly, it would have been another bottom feeder."
County officials plan to lobby for changes in state law that would require adjacent property owners be notified before tax deed sales and that the value of common areas in subdivisions be divided among all property owners. That way, those areas wouldn't be individually owned and couldn't come up at a tax sale.
Sales will be explained more clearly and advertised in community newspapers, not just small business publications. The clerk will tell commissioners about upcoming sales, so that county staffers can flag problem properties and buy them.
County lawyers also plan to review each of the 50 properties Connolly owns in Pinellas and notify all adjacent property owners that they have a new neighbor.
They also will review zoning rules and environmental laws to see if those can help the Tarpon Woods and Pasadena owners. They also are studying eminent domain law. Those laws can be used to buy land that has a public purpose.
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