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Search deep to check into property rights

Be alert or run the risk of being Connolly'd, property appraiser Jim Smith says. Checking a deed doesn't tell the whole tale.

By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 9, 2002

In Indian Rocks Beach, they have a name for their local example of scattershot Florida development: "No man's land."

A couple of decades after the first seawalls were built in Indian Rocks, a second set was added several feet farther into the Intracoastal Waterway, creating more back yard for the homeowners.

But in many cases, the property owners never added to their deeds the slivers of land between the first and second seawalls. When a resident came to City Hall recently with plans to install a swimming pool, Community Services Director Katherine Burbridge warned him about the "no man's land" he had assumed was part of his back yard.

She directed the resident to county offices to claim the land and begin paying taxes on it. "It was funny," Burbridge recalled, "because he said, 'I better go down there before Connolly grabs it.' "

That's Don Connolly, the Valrico land speculator who last month sent hundreds of waterfront property owners scrambling for their deeds to make sure they owned what they thought they did. Connolly made headlines after buying submerged lands and halves of two people's homes at tax deed sales, then threatening to block access to docks or fence off his portion of the houses unless adjacent homeowners bought his parcels.

His notoriety led countless property owners who live on the water or near public green spaces to call the county property appraiser's office for peace of mind. Yet, even though Connolly's exploits hit people so close to home, many people are still relying on community lore and assurances from neighbors that their submerged lands are safe.

"People are getting ripped off all the time by not crossing their T's and dotting their I's," said Jim Smith, the Pinellas property appraiser. "When you buy a home, you can't trust that everybody's going to do the job they say they're going to do."

The notion of buying and selling land beneath the water is the age-old story of Florida, where the boom of the 1920s led a development-hungry state to sell land that wasn't even land. Such parcels were dredged into upland neighborhoods, including places on the barrier islands like Crystal Island in Madeira Beach and Vina Del Mar in St. Pete Beach.

Once in private hands, the submerged lands passed from person to person, sometimes attached to the adjacent upland property, sometimes not. The state no longer sells submerged lands and owns much of the land under docks in Pinellas.

When it comes to submerged lands and other public areas that are adjacent to private properties, Smith urges property owners to do the necessary research. While county officials are trying to address the problem and state legislators Jim Sebesta and Gus Bilirakis have filed legislation that curtail plans like Connolly's, for now the best defense is due diligence.

The unexpected can happen to anyone, Smith said.

As an example, he referred to his daughter, who bought a new home in Orlando a couple of years ago because it had acres of woods behind it where her children could play -- acreage the developer pledged as green space. Smith said he encouraged her to research the plans for the woods, but she didn't, and now it is being razed to make way for a new low-income housing development.

Researching the ownership of submerged land is not as simple as checking a deed. In a waterfront area just outside South Pasadena, where Connolly bought the submerged lands beneath the docks of 61 homeowners, the docks appeared on most homeowners' surveys.

That didn't mean the homeowners owned the submerged land the docks occupied.

The chain of title for submerged lands can be so complex and cumbersome to research that submerged land is often not included in title insurance policies, said Catherine Anderson, president of Fidelity National Title for eight counties, including those of Tampa Bay.

"Unless there is a clear chain of title for the submerged lands that would go back many, many years, the titles to submerged lands are not insured," Anderson said.

When Connolly's actions first made headlines, the property appraiser's office asked homeowners to direct their questions to local neighborhood association heads who could call on their behalf. Yet presidents of several beach homeowners' associations reached last week said no one had inquired.

Harold Radcliffe, the mayor of North Redington Beach, said he thought that the town's submerged lands were safe, but he said he planned to check on it.

"We've discussed it just in conversation," Radcliffe said. "All of the submerged land around ours is owned by the state, that's one thing we do have, we think."

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