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Asking price for lot: $400K

Pinellas bought Jim Smith's land for $225,000, still more than its tax value.

By WILL VAN SANT
Published July 21, 2007


Pinellas County Property Appraiser Jim Smith put his vacant parcel on Brooker Creek up for sale in July 2006, asking $400,000.

After nearly nine months without an offer, an irate Smith paid a visit to County Administrator Steve Spratt, saying the county had destroyed his land during flood control work and dashed his dream of building a home there.

Within weeks, Pinellas County would become the only willing buyer of the 1.5-acre parcel, which had been advertised just weeks earlier in real estate fliers as a "Beautiful Custom Home Site."

Those new details, which contradict what officials have previously said, came to light this week. They come roughly two weeks after the St. Petersburg Times reported that the county had paid $225,000 for the lot, quadruple the value Smith's office assigned the land for tax purposes.

Interviews with key players and a review of documents this week by the Times call into question earlier accounts both Smith and county leaders have given of the controversial deal. And they lay out a sequence of events that from the beginning appears destined to benefit Smith.

In an interview Friday, the 67-year-old Smith, who has been appraiser for nearly 20 years and plans to run for re-election in 2008, dismissed his contradictory recollections and inability to construct a consistent chronology of events this way:

"I never thought I would have to do much butt-covering."

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Spratt filed a report last week with county commissioners suggesting a March 13 letter sent by Smith's attorney initiated interest in the property.

The letter proposed the county buy the "destroyed" land so that Smith "can have adequate funds to seek an alternative piece of property."

In fact, Spratt had already heard from Smith in person March 8. Another high-level county employee also met Smith that day.

A subordinate in Smith's office persuaded Charles Norwood, a 36-year veteran of county government and now Pinellas' director of Geographic Services, to visit Smith's property as a personal favor.

Norwood said the subordinate, Charles Dye, told him Smith wanted to build a house on the property, which has wetlands, and needed to assess construction options.

Norwood encountered a livid Smith there, complaining about what the county had done to his property.

"He was unbelievably mad," Norwood said, "screaming, yelling, cussing. And that's when I left."

That same day, Spratt said he had been "shocked" by how upset the appraiser was and promised he would look into the damage. He also told Smith he would investigate if owning the property was in the county's interest.

Spratt said that, knowing any sign of special treatment would raise eyebrows, he told county staff that a "heightened degree of sensitivity" was needed to make sure the matter was handled responsibly.

But the county's actions repeatedly benefited Smith. And alternatives to buying - such as repairing the land - were never seriously considered.

A Times review of the deal shows:

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Smith first complained about property damage around September 2005, just months after the county worked to alleviate flood conditions throughout the Tarpon Woods area spawned by the 2004 hurricanes.

But he didn't pursue the matter. In recent interviews, Smith said he considered those alterations minimal, something he could live with.

The county claims to have done no work on the property since 2005. An adjoining property owner insists no work has taken place since that time. The only evidence the Times could find for any recent disturbance comes from Progress Energy, whose work crews cleared limbs from power lines above the property about a year ago.

But Smith has claimed repeatedly in recent weeks that he visited his lot in February or early March of this year to find it "devastated," and laid the blame on county workers.

This puzzles Norwood: "I don't know what changed. All is right with the world. And then in March of '07 he comes in totally mad ... and threatens a lawsuit? To my mind, he put the gun sights to the county in '07."

In an interview Friday, Smith had a difficult time saying just what had changed. After initially repeating that the property must have been damaged earlier this year because it was fine last summer, Smith backtracked. He said he must have been "mistaken" because he hadn't visited the property in 2006.

It did not matter when the damage had actually been done by the county, he said, whether recently or in 2005. What matters, he insisted, is that the wrong be addressed.

"This was really an issue of me standing up for my rights," he said. "Yeah, I'm the property appraiser, but I'm also a citizen."

Smith's pursuit with the county came as he was pursuing another piece of real estate, a $497,000 Countryside home. Earlier this month, Smith and his wife of 11 years, Catherine Harlan, divorced. On March 9, the day after Smith visited Spratt, the home they had shared through 2004 was sold for nearly $1.2-million. Smith said Friday the house was Harlan's and he saw none of the money.

Leading up to the closing on his new home, Smith acknowledged telling county officials that delays could complicate the purchase. He hoped to use cash from the county for the home's down payment.

Smith denies attempting to coerce the deal. "I did not lean on the county. ... I have done absolutely nothing wrong."

Times staff writers Jonathan Abel and Theresa Blackwell and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or 727445-4166.