Weeds sprout, as do suspicions
By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN
Published July 1, 2007
Venetian Isles has long been known as one of the most attractive waterfront communities in southern Pinellas County. That's due in part to an active homeowners association, which tries to move quickly whenever a property starts to look weedy or rundown.
In three cases, though, the association is having a hard time finding the owners.
"A lot of you have been calling to question what is going on with the home on Overlook Drive with the overgrown lawn, and a few other properties, " president Jim Pelletier wrote in the current newsletter. "Believe me, we are very aware of them and involved with them."
The association is dealing with an increasingly familiar problem in the Tampa Bay area as the housing bubble deflates. Many expensive homes were financed for 100 percent of the purchase price and are now falling into foreclosure and disrepair because the absentee owners can't - or won't - make the hefty mortgage payments.
In Venetian Isles, concern first arose over a house on Carolina Drive whose "owners" - an elderly couple - say their signature was forged without their knowledge on $930, 000 in loans. The lawn is nearly dead and the house, now vacant, is in foreclosure proceedings.
"Somebody is responsible for that property, and we're going to have to find that somebody and tell them they must do this and that, " says Bob Johnson, vice president of the homeowners association. "Whether it was sold on scam or not, the deed restrictions are legally enforceable."
The association has sued the owner of another house, this one on Overlook Drive, the main entrance to the 533-home subdivision on Tampa Bay. Last week, the grass was knee-high and the house was vacant, as it has been intermittently for months.
Public records show that the home was purchased in November for $1, 050, 000, almost $275, 000 more than for comparable sales during the peak of the real estate boom in 2004-2005. The property was financed for the full amount by Virgil Dennard, who showed a California driver's license as identification.
In its complaint, the association says Dennard has violated Venetian Isles' deed of restrictions by "failing to maintain his yard, " noting that "the plant beds are full of weeds and there are dead shrubs lining the sidewalk entrance."
In June, the city filed a lien against the house because of $341 in unpaid utility bills. Records show that the utilities were in the name of Virgil and then "Virgie" Dennard from Feb. 6 to May 16 but have been shut off since then.
Dennard does not live in the house, and mail sent there was returned as "undeliverable, " according to the association's law firm. Nor does Dennard live in another house he bought about the same time on Boca Ciega Bay in the South Pasadena area. He financed that for $1.275-million, $25, 000 more than the publicly recorded sales price.
When signing the loan documents on the second house, Dennard showed a Florida driver's license instead of the California one he had shown when buying the Venetian Isles home a few weeks earlier.
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles says it has no record of a Virgil Dennard with a license in Florida. The only Virgil Dennard in California did not return calls from a St. Petersburg Times reporter seeking comment.
The sellers of both houses mortgaged in Dennard's name say the person they dealt with was not Dennard, but a man named Tommy Watts.
"He called himself an investor, " said Robert Learned, one of the sellers. "He was kind of vague - he didn't seem to want to talk about what he did."
For a brief period, Watts himself owned the third house in Venetian Isles that has raised the concern of the homeowners association. He bought it in May 2006 for $829, 000, mortgaged it for the full amount, then sold it four months later for $1.1-million - a 33 percent profit in a slow real estate market.
The buyer, Kevin Park, also financed the full purchase price of the house, which is now in foreclosure proceedings. With weeds sprouting and different people streaming in and out, neighbors and the homeowners association have tried unsuccessfully to contact Park. Somewhat curiously, the utilities are still in Watts' name.
"Nobody has talked to or seen Mr. Park, " says Linda Testa, head of the deed restrictions committee.
Like Dennard, Watts and Park gave California addresses when they signed mortgage papers. Watts, though, used to live in Pinellas County, where he has a criminal record that includes convictions for larceny, armed robbery and dealing in stolen property. And like Dennard and Park, Watts could not be reached for comment.
"It's such a dilemma when we have these absentee owners who are in violation and we have more than 500 other owners who just don't understand, " Testa says. "There's nothing we can do but contact the owner, but when we can't find the owner, it's a real problem."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.