Lake buyers in the pink
By ROBERT FARLEY and JEFF TESTERMAN
EAST LAKE -- Six months ago, a defiant Don Connolly told 15 homeowners they'd have to pay him $450,000 for a neighborhood lake he bought for $848.
This week, as a judge considers whether to send him to jail on an unrelated criminal charge, Connolly said he felt remorseful and sold the lake to one of the homeowners for $4,000.
"It's quite satisfying," said one of the Tarpon Woods residents, Len Freborg. "I don't know what we'll do with it. I guess we'll just look at it like before."
As for Connolly, Freborg said, "he can take the money and save it up for cigarettes when he's in the clink."
The standoff between Connolly and the residents made national news when Connolly erected a fence between some of the homes and the lake, and painted a portion of it pink.
With the sale Wednesday, the lake and adjacent shoreline will be carved up like a pie and transferred to the lakefront homeowners who chipped in for the purchase.
Connolly, 44, who committed felony tax fraud four years ago, faces sentencing next Tuesday on violation of probation charges that could put him in prison for five years.
But he said Wednesday the sale had nothing to do with his court date.
"I reflected on this entire situation and I think it's the right thing to do," he said.
After the cost of a survey and other expenses, Connolly said, he sold the lake at a loss. He said he realized he made a mistake and never should have bought the property.
At the closing Wednesday afternoon in the law office of state Rep. Gus Bilirakis, Connolly apologized to Dr. Reinhard Lauterbach, who represented the homeowners.
"He was well dressed and seemed cultivated and well mannered," Lauterbach said.
"You'd never believe he was the kind of man who was in trouble. He apologized for all the inconvenience, and said that's what happens when you lose your focus and do things you don't normally do."
Connolly said Lauterbach accepted his apology.
The sale involved a simple check for $4,000 to Connolly, covering Connolly's cost of the tax deed and the expense of surveying the oddly shaped property before erecting the fence on the shoreline.
"We basically got reimbursed for the cost of one survey today," Connolly said.
Connolly backed down from adding $1,600 to the price, money he said he needed to obtain the legal descriptions of the property from his surveyor.
"It went pretty smoothly," said Bilirakis, who helped broker the sale.
"He (Connolly) was kind of remorseful," he said. "He said he didn't intend for this to happen. He said he didn't want to hurt these people and he wanted to make it right.
"But he did hurt these people," Bilirakis said. "They went through a lot these past few months."
The pink fence was directly behind Alice Beehner's home. She spread news of the purchase to several of her neighbors Wednesday.
"Everyone is just going, 'Whew,' " she said.
She said they plan to celebrate with a neighborhood keg party.
In anticipation of the purchase, Beehner returned her bird houses to the banks of the lake behind her house.
"It's been a long, nasty, drawn-out thing," Beehner said. "But it's over."
But she's not so quick to forgive Connolly.
She's convinced Connolly's expressions of remorse are for show, to curry favor with a judge in his upcoming hearing.
"He did wrong to a lot of people," she said. "This is his mode of operation. I feel sorry for the people who have to deal with him next."
Connolly said the sale was the best way he could think of to correct a mistake.
"It's a very humbling thing to do," Connolly said.
The lake was just one of dozens of properties Connolly has purchased at delinquent tax sales.
Last week, Connolly offered to sell any of his tax deed purchases to either the county or adjacent property owners, at his cost. He said he is working with several people who have contacted him to take him up on his offer.
He declined to say how many or who they are.
"It's been a very positive thing," he said. "This is the best solution I could come up with to solve the situation."
Connolly said he intends to continue to buy properties at tax deed sales.
"This is the business we're in," he said.
"Of course I'm going to continue to buy. But we're not going to buy any property that appears to have controversy."
Hours before Connolly's sale of the lakefront property to the Tarpon Woods homeowners, another buyer for the property surfaced for what he insisted was a serious plan to buy the land.
Alvin Danielson, a Pinellas retiree from the Florida Department of Transportation, said he wanted the property to make a movie about a developer who outrages homeowners after buying a residential lake.
"Can you picture Chevy Chase playing Don Connolly?" Danielson asked. "Can you see him on a yacht out in the middle of a lake?
"I'd have people falling out of their seats. It might wake people up so they'd do something about the government putting these kinds of properties up for sale."
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