Speculator tried to block apartments
By JEFF TESTERMAN, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Land speculator Don Connolly tried last year to parlay a $3,700 tax deed into a windfall worth as much as $2.32-million.
Connolly's plan was as simple as buying a small piece of property on an easement that provided the only way in and out of an apartment complex.
Then he announced plans to demolish the roadway.
If the idea was to get the owner to buy the property for millions, it didn't work. The company went to court and won, but Connolly has appealed.
"What he has wanted from the beginning is to extract a sum of money from our client," said Robert Rocke, the attorney representing Northland Southwest One Limited Partnership, the apartment complex owner.
"I don't think this kind of thing ought to be tolerated," Rocke said.
Connolly, a Valrico entrepreneur, has angered scores of Pinellas County homeowners by fencing lakefront properties and threatening to cordon off docks around submerged lands he bought at tax deed sales.
He began his apartment-related investment plan with some courthouse research. It revealed that taxes had not been paid for years on the parcel at the entrance to Northland's the Lakes on Parsons 232-unit rental apartment complex in Brandon.
In February 2001, Connolly pulled the trigger on his plan. He formed his Jabez Land Trust, named for a Biblical success story, and presented a certified check for $3,700 to buy the 200-by-600-foot property at a tax deed sale. A few weeks later, he obtained a demolition permit from Hillsborough County and notified the apartment owners he intended to demolish all improvements -- roadway, lights, landscaping.
That would include digging up the road.
Connolly then sent notices to some 400 apartment residents, warning, "You enter this area at your own risk" during a specified 120-day demolition period.
Nearby commercial buildings make the construction of any alternative road in or out of the complex impossible. So Northland, which bought the $7.5-million complex four years ago, took Connolly to court, winning an injunction to prevent the demolition.
The court order did not stop Connolly. He appealed the lower court ruling and says he still wants to develop the tiny property off Parsons Avenue where banners, a large median planter and rental signs point the way to apartments that rent from $585 to $835 a month.
Connolly said in a sworn deposition last year that he would be willing to sell the Jabez Land Trust parcel at the right price.
The value of the 12,000-square-foot slice of land? Because of what he called the "excessive commercial use" of the property by apartment dwellers, Connolly put it at $7,500 to $10,000 per apartment unit, or $1.74-million to $2.32-million.
Connolly declined to comment for this story.
Alarmed by the headlines Connolly has been making, local legislators said this week that property owners need to be protected from such speculators. But state law currently does not require notification of adjacent landowners when a tax deed is being auctioned.
Florida statutes require only that the owner of the property and any creditors and mortgage holders with liens on the property be notified, said Helene Marks, attorney for the office of Hillsborough Clerk of the Court Richard Ake.
Adjacent property owners can ask the tax collector that they be notified by the clerk of the court, but Northland apparently never worried about the small parcel at the apartment's entrance because the company had been granted a perpetual easement, or right of way, from the highway to the apartments. That easement permitted transportation and the installation of utility lines.
But Connolly decided he could purchase the deed for the land that made up part of the easement and then do whatever he wanted with the property.
After buying the tax deed, he got his demolition permit and began taking down apartment banners and signs on his new property. His warning notices to renters sent up a red flag, and Northland sued.
Northland complained that ingress and egress would be blocked, that residents might be harmed by planned demolition work and that Connolly's development plans "impeded Northland's efforts to attract and maintain tenants" at the Lakes on Parsons.
In March 2001, Circuit Judge James M. Barton granted an injunction against Connolly, saying his "interference with the easement jeopardizes the health, safety and welfare of the tenants." Chief among the judge's concerns was the fear that emergency vehicles might be blocked from getting to the apartments.
In his deposition, Connolly said, "When I get finished (with demolition), there will be nothing but dirt." But he denied that he would obstruct the access of vehicles, emergency or otherwise.
So what were his plans after the demolition work was completed? Connolly was vague.
"Well, we're going to use it," said Connolly, who works out of his home and uses a mail drop for a business address. "We're not really sure. We know we're going to use it for something."
Connolly emphasized the main reason he acquires properties at foreclosure auctions and tax deed sales is to sell them. He said he owned "about 300 pieces of property we're working on" in Florida.
"Well, I would sell any property I own," he said, even his own home if the price was right.
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