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Holding out, all by herself, on Levis Avenue

Because of eminent domain, her Tarpon Springs neighbors already left.

Published June 4, 2007


What hurts Karen Cousin the most is the imprint her family left on the house, the little touches and memories you really can't take with you.

Her children's scribbles on the walls. The tree she planted in the yard as a sapling -- now strong and full -- after her father died. The modest headstone that marks the grave of Peppy, the family dog.

"I didn't ask for this," she said. "I didn't ask to be moved."

Cousin's home of 20 years sits across the street from Tarpon Springs Elementary School, which the Pinellas County School Board last year scheduled to be demolished, replaced and expanded.

She is the last holdout on her block of Levis Avenue. Her neighbors' homes, sold to the School Board, sit shuttered and empty.

But Cousin has refused to sell. At first she simply didn't want to leave the 1,614-square-foot home.

Then, she said she couldn't afford to, given what the School Board was willing to pay. A 911 dispatcher and the household's sole wage earner, Cousin said she couldn't find a comparable home for her family -- three daughters, her mother, three dogs, reptiles, snakes, lizards and a 200-gallon terrarium filled with critters. Her current home has five bedrooms and two baths.

The School Board has since made a new offer, but Cousin hasn't settled. She couldn't be reached for comment Friday on the latest sum.

"I'm living next to a construction site," said Cousin, surveying the overturned earth across Levis Avenue on a recent afternoon. "When I go outside, I have grit and dirt in my teeth. But I cannot, as a mother, sign their papers."

Regardless, she'll have to move. A few weeks ago, the School Board filed an eminent domain suit, a legal maneuver that allows government to seize private property for a compelling public interest.

A property taking hearing is scheduled for July 2 -- unless Cousin and the board reach an agreement first. The only question left is how much money she'll be paid.

"I never knew this could happen," Cousin said. "That you could not do anything wrong and someone could just come take your house."

Board defends offers

Home ownership -- like starting a business from scratch or cultivating a nest egg -- is a staple of the American Dream. Leaving behind the world of rentals means security; it means no one can force you out of your home if you stay out of trouble.

But in fast-growing Florida, particularly in its most densely populated county, the tension between government needs and property owners is destined to escalate as demand grows for public schools, roads and other infrastructure.

Cousin's predicament started a year ago, when she was shopping at Sam's Club. She got a call on her cell phone from Jim Miller, director of the real property management department for Pinellas County schools, who told her Tarpon Springs Elementary was expanding and that the School Board would like to acquire her property.

Cousin laughed. "Well, I'm not interested in selling," she told him.

But she says Miller went on to describe the concept of eminent domain -- that the government could take private property if it was determined to be for the greater good of the public.

When first confronted with the prospect of losing her home, Cousin was more concerned with sentiment than negotiation. Some people treat houses like wardrobes, trading in for a new one when the market -- or their whimsy -- shifts. Cousin isn't one of them. She's a nester.

But as talks with the county moved forward, Cousin -- and some of her neighbors -- thought they weren't getting a fair deal financially. They charged the School Board with undervaluing their houses. And they complained that state law favored government because the required compensation for seizing property didn't cover the total cost of moving, including losing property tax breaks under the Save Our Homes cap.

"They didn't even touch" the true costs, Cousin's neighbor Tammy Hazime said of the county's offer. "I fought them as long as I could, but I couldn't do it any more financially."

By law, the School Board is required only to offer the appraised value of the property, according to School Board attorney Jim Robinson.

Public records show the School Board has exceeded the appraised value when settling with Cousin's neighbors by paying "incentives." These sums are generally less than the legal fees associated with condemnation proceedings, Robinson said. And settling early enables the board to be prudent with taxpayers' money, he said.

The records show the payments to the other five homeowners targeted for the project varied by more than $100,000 and didn't necessarily correspond with the county property appraiser's assessments of the properties' worth in 2004-05.

A property owner with a county appraisal close to Cousin's (about $190,000) received $250,000 for the appraised value and $136,000 in incentives from the School Board.

The board's most recent offer to Cousin (made after the filing of the eminent domain suit) includes an assessed value of $236,000 and incentives totaling $123,539.

In the lawsuit filed by the School Board, the appraised value of Cousin's property is listed as $265,000.

According to Miller, part of the spread in incentive packages can be attributed to improvements made to the properties and consideration of homeowners' own appraisals.

He said the board dealt fairly with all acquisitions.

But if Cousin ends up in court, she could get less.

The School Board will withdraw all incentives if an agreement is not reached by July 2. Then it will be up to a jury to determine not if she keeps her property, but how much she'll get for it.

"People tell me, 'You can fight it, but you won't get anything,' " Cousin said. "It's me vs. the invisible man."

[Last modified June 3, 2007, 21:29:29]

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