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Threat of suit nudged land sale

A new report details the Pinellas property appraiser's sale of his own land to the county.

By WILL VAN SANT
Published July 14, 2007


In September 2005, Pinellas County Property Appraiser Jim Smith first raised concerns that flood control work had damaged his vacant East Lake parcel.

The county apologized, and the matter appeared resolved.

Eighteen months later Smith would complain a second time: with a letter from his lawyer suggesting the county buy Smith's 1.5-acres of vacant land "to resolve this matter in a fair and expeditious manner."

Smith's lawyer suggested the county buy the property so that Smith "can have adequate funds to seek an alternative piece of property with a pastoral setting."

Those new details emerged in a report County Administrator Steve Spratt filed late Friday. County commissioners had ordered the report in response to the purchase late last month of Smith's property for $225,000 - nearly four times the value Smith's office appraised it at for tax purposes.

In an interview Friday, Smith explained that the damage done by county crews in 2005 was minor but when he visited earlier this year, the property had been "devastated," which prompted him to get legal counsel.

Smith said someone had cut down trees. Brooker Creek, which runs through the property, had been widened and a trench had been deepened.

The report issued Friday stated that county workers had not worked on the land since 2005.

And a neighbor who lives across from the lot questioned Smith's account.

"That's not true," said Jane Gebhart, a neighbor whose property is just south of Smith's.

According to Gebhart, a 53-year-old homemaker, the only work done on Smith's parcel since 2005 happened a year ago. Workers with a private utility company, she said, trimmed some tree branches from around power lines.

Smith said he considered that maybe fishermen using the creek were responsible for the new damage but concluded it must have been the county. "Who else is going to do it?" he said.

Smith, 67, said he contacted Clearwater attorney James Helinger earlier this year to discuss his options. But Smith said Helinger wrote the letter without his knowledge.

Smith said he quickly dropped the idea of legal action, because as an elected official, negotiation seemed more appropriate.

But the threat of a lawsuit cast a more of shadow over talks than the county has previously acknowledged, the internal report suggests.

In 2005, the report said, the assumption was emergency powers allowed the county to alter Smith's property without permission because of damage from the 2004 hurricanes. But "the County's Attorney's Office presently does not support that interpretation," the report reads.

The report also outlines how the county staff, despite having another estimate of the property's buildable land that was 10 percent lower, went with a higher estimate of 1.03 acres. The buildable land was the key factor the outside appraiser used in setting the value at $250,000.

Assistant County Administrator Peter Yauch acknowledged Friday that the more generous estimate was used "because of a desire to resolve (Smith's) concerns. ... He had threatened to sue."

Plus, he said, the final price paid to Smith was still 10 percent less than the $250,000 value.

Smith shrugged off concerns over the price being nearly four times the $59,400 his office assigned the land on the tax roll.

"Nobody is going to sell their property for what we've got on the roll," he said. "We are so far behind the market."

Times staff writer Theresa Blackwell contributed to this report.