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Losing this lawsuit counts as a win

Clearwater doesn't want to be in a legal entanglement that jeopardizes a condo tower.

By MIKE DONILA
Published July 15, 2007


photo
Opus South's Water's Edge Condominium, left, may have been partially built on a small piece of the city's land on the west side of the building.
[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
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photo
[Ron Brackett | Times]

» Fast Facts
Who owns strip?
The city's charter requires voters approve the sale of City Hall or any other city-owned property between Drew and Pierce streets west of Osceola Avenue. A judge has been asked to determine ownership of a strip of land that lies in this area. Developers are building part of their condo tower on it.
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Clearwater is in a lawsuit that city leaders wouldn't mind losing.

The city wants new downtown residents with spending power to help revitalize the area. Water's Edge development, a 153-unit condominium tower, can bring them.

But now, the two sides are in a legal entanglement that neither wants to be in.

Developers recently discovered that a small strip of the lot where their 25-story building sits might be owned by the city. Water's Edge officials have asked a judge to affirm that their developer and affiliate, Opus South of Tampa, owns it.

But if the judge rules otherwise, developers want the court to provide a solution that doesn't involve tearing down the building.

Meanwhile, the city attorney's office is putting together a case that says the city owns the strip. And a city victory could jeopardize the development.

"I don't think there's any benefit for the city if that project fails," Mayor Frank Hibbard said. "For the project to succeed - that's what's going to benefit the city."

City Councilman George Cretekos added: "I don't think any of us will lose any sleep over it if the city loses this particular case."

The city's charter requires voters approve the sale of City Hall or any other city-owned property between Drew and Pierce streets west of Osceola Avenue. The disputed strip, just north of City Hall and on the condo tower's western border, lies in this area.

If the city owns the land, it would probably try to sell it back to the developer. But it's not a given that voters would approve such a deal. And no one is quite sure what happens then.

In the fall of 2004, Water's Edge paid $15-million to Calvary Baptist Church for its downtown campus, which included the disputed strip.

Water's Edge officials discovered that they might not own the strip of land about three months ago, while challenging the taxes on the overall property. At that time, the county appraiser's office told them the city owned the strip.

The issue of ownership is confusing because various deeds and city-approved resolutions approved in 1959 contradict each other. City zoning maps show that the developer owns the disputed strip.

City officials have championed the Water's Edge project and want it to succeed. But they also realize they have a fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers to try to determine whether the city owns the land.

Local leaders say they'll put forth the best effort to win in court.

But they kind of hope they lose.

"I wouldn't be upset at all if that happened," Councilman Paul Gibson said.

Vice Mayor John Doran agreed, adding the city "will lay out the facts as we understand them and go from there."

Meanwhile, a local organization that has often fought city waterfront projects is waiting in the background.

Anne Garris, chairwoman of Save the Bayfront, said the group hopes that the city receives money for the land and that it's used to "do long overdue" upgrading for nearby Coachman Park.

"As an individual, I am totally outraged that the people in the city, the people in the church and the people in the development business were so careless with the valuable property that belongs to the people of Clearwater," said Garris, a longtime City Hall critic, adding that she wouldn't be surprised if the strip was public land.

[Last modified July 15, 2007, 19:05:57]


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