Neighbors will be told of looming land auctions
By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
INVERNESS -- As the tale of Tampa Bay area land speculator Don Connolly unfolded in recent weeks, Citrus County officials took a second look at their own operations.
They wondered what would prevent someone from doing the same thing up here: buying underwater properties at tax auctions, then threatening to block neighbors' waterfront views or boat docks with a fence unless they bought the land from him at an inflated price.
And they realized, nothing did.
If the taxes go unpaid for at least two years on any property -- even a common area like a community entrance or a man-made lake -- the county can't stop it from being sold at auction. But Tax Collector Janice Warren and Property Appraiser Ron Schultz have created a system to at least give the Citrus neighbors a little warning.
When someone applies to Warren's office to bring a property up for auction, Schultz's office will research the land and determine whether it is a common area or underwater property that may be owned by a developer but enjoyed by abutting residents.
If Schultz's office believes the sale could affect neighbors, it will send a letter notifying them, Deputy Property Appraiser Melanie Hensley said.
"We don't have to do it, but in order to try to prevent that from happening here, time willing we will certainly look into it," Hensley said. "We would not want that to happen in Citrus County."
"We would let them know (about the upcoming auction) and they could contact the developer and say, "Hey, are you going to pay the taxes, or could you turn it over to the homeowners association?"' she continued. "But there wouldn't be anything we could do except notify them."
Connolly first made headlines in May when he erected a 6-foot-high fence around a lake in the north Pinellas community of Tarpon Woods.
The 15 homeowners thought they owned the 4-acre lake behind their upscale homes. But the body of water was actually a drainage pond that belonged to the East Lake developer, and when he stopped paying the taxes on it, Connolly bought it at a February tax auction for $848.
Those homeowners were astonished when Connolly offered to sell them the lake for $30,000 each.
Further research revealed the Valrico land speculator had also bought a strip of submerged land behind 61 South Pasadena homes in south Pinellas County. Those homeowners had also thought they owned the land beneath their boat docks, but when the developer failed to pay the taxes on the underwater strip, Connolly snatched it up in November for $2,000.
Although the highest profile cases have involved waterfront properties, Connolly has also speculated on landlocked strips.
For instance, last year Connolly bought a small easement that is the only way in and out of a 232-unit apartment complex in Tampa, then made plans to demolish the entrance. In a sworn deposition, Connolly said he would be willing to sell the easement for $7,500 to $10,000 per apartment, but the complex's owners are fighting him in court.
"The situations like this are rare, but obviously to the homeowners it happens to, it's devastating," Warren said.
The Connolly case has prompted Citrus officials to watch for similar land purchases here, but Warren said residents can also do their part.
People with waterfront homes, for example, should know whether they overlook a natural water body that is publicly owned, or a man-made canal or pond that is owned by an individual or company, she said.
They can also keep an eye out for nearby properties coming up for auction, Warren added. A sign is placed on the property and a public notice appears in the newspaper legal advertisements for four weeks before the auction.
A wealth of information is also available to anyone with Internet access. Searchable databases for the clerk of courts, tax collector and property appraiser are available online.
Information about recent and upcoming tax auctions is posted on the clerk's Web site. Click on "Tax Deeds" at the lower left corner of the page, and a calendar with shaded auction dates appears. Click on any shaded day, and a list pops up with the properties for sale. Upcoming auction days are added to the computer calendar as soon as they are scheduled.
Additional information about a property's size, location and value is available at the property appraiser's Web site. Click on "Search Database," and you can find property information by owner or address.
To find out more about the back taxes owed on a property, visit the tax collector's Web site and click on "Property Taxes." Then click "Online Property Tax Records," and search for the property by owner or account number.
Perhaps more than anything else, Warren said, the publicity around Don Connolly's activities could help thwart copycats in Citrus County and elsewhere.
"I think the most important thing is happening through the media, which is creating awareness of this unusual situation," Warren said. "Because it has happened (in the Tampa Bay area) and is receiving such media coverage, the public is now aware."
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