The speculator's strategy
By LEONORA LaPETER and ROB FARLEY
It may be a strip of land a few feet wide in Palm Harbor. Or a vacant lot in a poor neighborhood in St. Petersburg. Or a sliver of lake in Ozona.
In a six-month period beginning last November, the Valrico land speculator acquired a combined 22 acres by paying delinquent tax bills or attending tax deed sales in Pinellas County. He spent $184,600.
A St. Petersburg Times review of the 49 Pinellas properties Connolly bought reveals an investor with eclectic tastes.
He likes well-placed strips of land in middle-class and wealthy suburban communities. But he also has an eye for vacant, undervalued lots clustered in some of St. Petersburg's poorer inner city neighborhoods.
Last week, Connolly did not respond to several requests to discuss his land-buying strategy. He pleaded guilty on Friday to felony charges of perjury and violation of probation in Hillsborough County.
Connolly's business tactics can be hard-nosed. He was not above trying to evict an elderly woman from her Palm Harbor villa. Or threatening to pull down an upscale community's entrance wall. Or building a pink fence in front of another community's lake.
Since Connolly's tactics have put him in the spotlight, Pinellas County has informed some 140 property owners that he is their neighbor. But many of those property owners have yet to hear from Connolly.
"Every time the doorbell rings," said Ella Mae Varner, 67, a retiree who lives on 11th Avenue S in St. Petersburg next to a lot Connolly recently purchased, "I think, "Is he coming?' "
Last week, Pinellas Property Appraiser Jim Smith acknowledged his office had used "insanely" poor judgment that benefited Connolly. Mapping experts were assigning parcel numbers and a value to small slivers of land. Then those parcels often wound up with delinquent tax bills and were auctioned off or sold by the county. Smith said he has changed procedures to end the practice.
Connolly had a taste for the tiny slivers.
Emily Pitkin said Connolly was soft-spoken when he called and told her he had bought 2 feet of her attached villa in Palm Harbor.
"I want a fair settlement," he told her.
The 2 feet includes the wall of Pitkin's master bedroom with the picture of her and her granddaughter and needlepoint pictures with homespun messages like "Chance made us neighbors, Hearts made us friends."
Connolly also claims 2 feet of Pitkin's bathroom, guest bedroom and garage. His attorney started at $30,000 in negotiations with Pitkin's son-in-law, attorney G. Penfield Jennings.
Pitkin ended her last conversation with Connolly, who threatened to evict her, by telling him he ought to be ashamed of harassing a senior citizen.
"He's such a rascal," said Pitkin, who declined to give her age.
Jennings found that the 2 feet had been left off the tax deed because of a discrepancy over where the concrete was poured for the attached villas. He said the strip of land doesn't exist. The sale to Connolly, he said, is a mistake that the county should correct by giving Connolly back the $600 he paid. County officials say they're not sure and are investigating.
Meanwhile, Connolly has asked the county to pay him back $1,900 he paid for a 1.7-foot strip, about 280 feet long, at Mangrove Pointe on St. Pete Beach.
Connolly bought the property because he thought it included the ornate entrance wall to Mangrove Pointe, an upscale waterfront community of eight homes. He threatened to tear down the wall if neighbors didn't pay up.
Francesca Beatty, an adjacent owner, said the land had become part of the development years ago to accommodate the wall.
"The property appraiser made a mistake," she said of the move to declare the strip a separate parcel. "It never existed."
Last February, county officials wrote Connolly and acknowledged they made a mistake. Sarah Richardson, senior assistant county attorney, said she is trying to get Connolly his money back.
Connolly's approach often has been to ask for the moon, then settle for much less. That was what happened with the submerged land off Pasadena Golf Club Estates. Connolly wanted a combined $6.1-million from adjacent property owners but settled for $18,000.
His highly publicized purchase of a lake and its banks in Tarpon Woods hasn't produced any money yet.
In February, Connolly sent letters to 15 homeowners around the lake seeking to sell it to them for $30,000 each, a total of $450,000. The pink fence that ended up on national television was erected after his offer was ignored by homeowners.
Last month, 11 of the homeowners banded together and offered to buy the property from Connolly for $2,000. Connolly asked for $30,000.
Last week, the Tarpon Woods residents offered Connolly $3,300, or $300 from each of 11 homeowners who agreed to try to buy the lake. He has not responded.
Other property owners say Connolly may have lost his gamble when he bought land next to theirs.
Horst G. Ulke of Clearwater said he won't pay Connolly for a 15-foot strip of vacant land that Connolly bought behind a handful of modest homes on Kapok Circle in Clearwater.
"I don't care what he wants to do with it," Ulke said.
Connolly might have a better chance with Thomas Williams, one of Ulke's neighbors. Williams said he has treated the land as his own for years and cleared the brush. He said he might buy it for a reasonable price. "Any more than a couple hundred bucks," Williams said, "forget it!"
One of the few properties Connolly has sold is a vacant lot he bought on 126th Ave. N in Largo. Barbara and Paul Kroll wanted the property to add to the 8 acres they owned. Connolly's asking price was $35,000, Barbara Kroll said, but he settled for $26,000. He paid $20,500 for it.
Connolly also has an interest in poor neighborhoods south of Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, where he has purchased about two dozen vacant lots.
Most of those lots, situated south of Central Avenue and north of 18th Avenue S, are overgrown with grass and trees. They are properties that residents have used to park cars, trucks and other property. Connolly paid from $1,000 to $3,000 for most of these vacant lots, many of them big enough to build on.
Lou Brown, a real estate agent in the area for 26 years, said he doesn't know of anyone else buying that much property in these low-income neighborhoods. But he said it makes sense because the area holds some of the only cheap, vacant land left in St. Petersburg.
Few residents who live alongside these lots have been contacted by Connolly. The Varners, who live on 11th Avenue S, have used the lot to park Grant Varner's tree-hauling trucks. Their doghouse is on the lot. They've used the property that way for decades.
"I told my husband we'll just have to move it all to our property across the street if he comes," said Mrs. Varner. "We don't want any problems."
Connolly has tried to sell some lots. He has a For Sale sign on a 2,728-square-foot lot on 11th Avenue S on the edge of the 13th Street Heights neighborhood. The sign says the property is available for $5,000 and tells potential buyers to call "Don." Connolly purchased that property for $2,000.
He also tried to sell an 11,500-square-foot property next to Annette Howard's apartment complex at 15th Avenue S and 22nd Street S for $25,000. He paid $4,200 for the two vacant lots last November. Howard kept it mowed over the last decade. She planted flowers and strawberries there.
When Howard declined to pay $25,000 for it, she said, Connolly hopped on a riding mower and mowed down her plantings.
"Then I never heard from him again," she said. "He nailed a For Sale sign on my tree and put one in the ground. You can't be that ugly. Good ol' Don Connolly. . . . I told my husband, back off, he'll get his."
-- Technology training editor Debbie Wolfe, staff writer Matthew Waite and researchers Caryn Baird and Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.
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