The neighborhood that could
By LEONORA LaPETER
Don Connolly walked into attorney Chris Sanders' brick-colored conference room, approached his Chippendale reproduction table and unrolled a large map of a pricey south Pinellas County waterfront community.
The map showed 61 parcels of land in Pasadena Gulf Club Estates. Connolly's surveyors had marked off the submerged land he owned adjacent to each home: 61 parcels of underwater land with the potential to wreak havoc on 61 homeowners.
After 60 days, the price would go up.
As soon as Connolly walked out the door, Sanders called his clients, Geoff and Tammy Apthorp. The couple were two days away from closing on their new home in the waterfront neighborhood.
Should they go ahead with the purchase now?
"Tammy and I looked at each other, and we know we'd rather fight and fail rather than run," said Geoff Apthorp, a 42-year-old business broker who has run several factories, including one in Clearwater that made telecommunications cable.
So the newcomers turned to their soon-to-be neighbors. Over the next few weeks, they persuaded Connolly to accept just $300 per homeowner. The combined price of the submerged land went from the $6.1-million Connolly demanded to $18,000 he received.
The high-stakes negotiations between the determined homeowners and the man who became Tampa Bay's best-known land speculator took just one month.
Tea with a nonagenarian
He struck like a water moccasin in this quiet community west of Gulfport. Tree-shaded in spots, Pasadena Gulf Club Estates was developed about 40 to 50 years ago and its 550 homes now range in price from $300,000 to $500,000.
At that point, Connolly wasn't well known. Since then, he has surfaced as one of the more notorious land speculators in the Tampa Bay area. His modus operandi: He buys slivers of land at county tax deed auctions and then tries to extract money from adjoining property owners.
"When we got the big picture, it became very clear that we had an issue here that had to be dealt with and that there would be many unhappy people," said Sanders, the Apthorps' lawyer. "This was going to hit people like a freight train, more or less."
The Apthorps learned that Connolly had purchased all the submerged land adjoining 61 parcels in the subdivision at a county tax deed auction in November 2001 for $2,000.
Sanders wrote a letter to the property owners in the neighborhood.
"This is a legitimate threat to the value of your property and to your rights as a waterfront property owner," he wrote. "Now is the time to join with your neighbors in addressing this issue together."
Geoff Apthorp and one of his new neighbors, Allen Lindsey, a 46-year-old harbor pilot, walked door-to-door that weekend handing out the letter. At each door, they found anger, denial, incredulity.
"He touched a nerve," Apthorp said. "These were people just like us, family people, and they were saying, "If he shows up on my property, I'm going to get my gun and shoot him.' These are people you don't expect to hear this from. But when you start messing with people's homes, it brings a whole different level of intensity."
A 94-year-old woman invited Apthorp into her home and served him tea on a doily. She was confused, upset and worried. Apthorp tried to explain, but he didn't know what was going to happen, either.
"That's when I said this has got to stop," he said. "Here was this sweet old lady. I felt like hugging her. She was like my grandmother."
The straw vote
About 100 people gathered in a conference room at the Pasadena Yacht and Country Club on May 16. Apthorp stood on the podium before his new neighbors, many of them with Connolly land behind their homes, others just there for support.
He was tired. Over the past week, he had moved his family to a new home and spent hours talking to the news media, which had camped out in the cul-de-sac outside his house. Now he would become the neighborhood leader in this fight against Connolly.
He and his lawyer, Sanders, told the homeowners that Connolly had lowered his price to $5,000 per homeowner. That was dramatically down from $100,000 he had demanded just 10 days earlier.
Everyone felt $5,000 was still too high. And there was another problem. One of their neighbors had just sold a home the day before and agreed to put $5,000 in escrow for Connolly. They worried: Had yesterday's sellers set a precedent?
Sanders explained that anyone with a dock more than 20 years old probably had a prescriptive easement, essentially squatter's rights. But that would have to be fought in a legal battle.
After an hour, the group concluded they didn't want to give in to Connolly. But many weren't willing to spend thousands of dollars on a protracted legal battle.
"Think about this," said Susan Texel, one homeowner who had researched Connolly's rights. "I've contacted every office there is -- I'm a stay-at-home mom -- and the bottom line is that what he did was legal . . . the bottom line is he owns it. Would you rather pay $1,000 or pay legal fees for the next five years of your life? If we buy it from him, we own it and it's over."
As a group, they decided to file a lawsuit and negotiate -- at the same time.
"We've got the stick in this hand and the olive branch in this hand," Apthorp said, lifting each arm. "We can go after both at the same time. I think that's an effective strategy."
Someone suggested they not pay more than $500 per homeowner.
"Let's see by a show of hands if $500 is a reasonable starting offer," Apthorp asked. Many of the homeowners in the room raised their hands.
Before they left, several homeowners suggested they keep their strategy a secret. They nominated a committee to deal with Connolly, and selected Apthorp as the leader.
"Whatever we do, we need to stick together and look at it as a whole rather than individuals," Sanders told them.
Back at their one-story beige stucco home, Julie and Ray Ramsey took a look at their finances. The couple had moved here 21/2 years ago from San Diego, where he was a probation officer and she worked in reservations for US Airways.
The retired couple had just put $8,000 into a boat lift on their dock. They looked at their bank accounts, considered their options. An equity line of credit? A second mortgage on the house?
"If we had to invest $5,000 to keep it, we were willing to do that," said Mrs. Ramsey, 53.
The homeowners got to work. They made more than 200 calls in three days, calling every politician and government employee they knew, from Pinellas County Attorney Susan Churuti to Gov. Jeb Bush. Then they called their neighbors and asked them to do the same.
Some of those politicians showed up at a meeting May 23 in a ballroom at Stetson University College of Law, including County Commissioner Ken Welch and state Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor.
The homeowners had hoped the county would offer them a solution.
Churuti said she was pursuing all avenues. But when the homeowners asked whether they could make modifications to their docks, county officials told them they would have to get Connolly's permission.
"It was obvious things were moving slower than we needed them to," said Terry Buchert, 45, a lawyer and one of the property owners with submerged land owned by Connolly. "And we were reading something new about him in the paper every day."
By then, Connolly, 44, of Valrico had made national news by putting up a 6-foot sparkly pink fence behind the home of an East Lake woman who refused to pay him $30,000 for a strip of land. He was also under investigation by the state.
But the south Pinellas homeowners had other concerns, too. Connolly was telling Sanders that people outside the state had expressed interest in the property. The property owners didn't want to deal with more than one Don Connolly.
So on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, Sanders faxed Connolly an offer of $10,000 from the homeowners for the submerged land, or $164 per homeowner.
"We were thinking, here's a guy who needs cash, maybe we're hitting him at the right time," Buchert said.
Buchert filed a lawsuit the following Tuesday, May 28. About the same time, Sanders placed a call to Connolly and asked him about the $10,000 offer. Connolly rejected it and countered with a demand of $40,000, or $656 per property.
They were getting closer.
That night, the committee agreed to offer him $18,000. Sanders called Connolly the next day with the new offer.
"How quickly can you do it?" Sanders recalled Connolly asking.
"Well, for me to get the money together is probably going to take time, I'm guessing, a week to 10 days," Sanders replied.
"If we can do it in three days, I'll take $18,000," Connolly told Sanders.
Once again, the Apthorps had to make a decision. It probably would be impossible to get each of the homeowners to cough up $300 immediately. Some would not be reached. So the Apthorps decided to pay the $18,000 themselves, then get the money from their new neighbors.
It would work out to $300 per property, plus a little more with the legal costs incurred by the group.
On June 4, Connolly stopped by Sanders' office to pick up the check.
"He expressed that he was very happy to have this thing finished," Sanders recalled. "I think it was all overwhelming him. He definitely mentioned that the media attention was consuming him. I think that and the fact that he knew he had a fight on his hands with a group that could fight a legal battle."
Connolly declined to be interviewed, saying that his business affairs were private.
Meanwhile, the Apthorps are waiting patiently to be reimbursed for the $18,000, which they had intended to use to refurbish their kitchen. Sanders said he will send a letter out this week asking the homeowners whether they intend to purchase their submerged lots from the Apthorps.
"It was fixing up the kitchen or owning a bunch of submerged mud," Tammy Apthorp said with a grin. "Now we can sleep at night, and we own mud."
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