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PHCC angry over handling of land deal

Trustees say that when negotiating the property sale, the Realtor should have disclosed that he owns the billboard over the parcel.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2001

SPRING HILL -- As Pasco-Hernando Community College trustees prepare to close on an $800,000 piece of property slated to become a new campus in Spring Hill, a dispute with the Realtor handling the sale threatens to snarl negotiations.

The sticking point is a billboard at the edge of the 58-acre parcel along U.S. 19, just north of Beverly Court, where PHCC hopes to build in eight to 10 years.

Trustees say Gary Schraut should have disclosed that he owns the billboard when they asked to add the land beneath it to the initial property deal worked out with his clients, the Conners family of Spring Hill.

College officials are outraged, saying Schraut never declared that he had a stake in the billboard on land he was selling to them. They want control of the billboard and are not sure whether what he did is legal. At the board's last meeting, trustees asked their lawyer to research the matter for any potential legal or ethical breach.

"I'm a licensed Realtor. I'm appalled," trustee Judy Braak said at the meeting, adding: "Give it up before we walk away with your (real estate) license." On Friday, Schraut balked at the suggestion of wrongdoing, saying he can't understand the fuss. "If Bubba Smith or Idi Amin owned the billboard, what's the difference? There's no requirement to divulge anything."

Schraut said he had nothing to hide from PHCC, and the red letters spelling "Schraut" at the bottom of both sides of the billboard prove that.

"I just never thought of mentioning that the billboard was there," he said. "It just didn't occur to me that everybody didn't remember it was there."

Trustees selected the site in July, after a tortuous two-year search that included other possible locations near the airport and along County Line Road. After choosing the land, which is near Hunter's Lake, the college decided to add roughly 10 acres to the original deal with the Conners family in order to get frontage on U.S. 19.

Schraut said he told the college's land planner then there was a billboard on the additional property.

The catch, according to college officials, is that Schraut didn't reveal he owned it.

"I don't know what the laws are about that," said trustees Chairwoman Judy Parker. "I think it's something that should have been discussed, whether it was legal or not."

The billboard stands on an easement owned by Brooksville lawyer and former PHCC trustee Tom Hogan Jr., who said he has been involved in a number of investments with Schraut.

Schraut said Hogan kept the easement after selling a 1.85-acre plot to the Conners family sometime in the mid to late 1990s.

At the time, there was a billboard on the land that was later torn down by the state Department of Transportation, Hogan said. He said he allowed Schraut and his partner, Jack Gavish, who brokered the sale together, to seek another license, rebuild the billboard, then leave it on the easement.

Hogan said he cannot turn the billboard over to the college without permission from Schraut and Gavish.

"I own the easement," he said. "I don't own the billboard."

College officials said they would like to gain control of the billboard before starting construction on the campus. As an alternative, Parker said, they would settle for an agreement with Schraut to make sure the billboard doesn't advertise items such as alcohol, adult shops or competing education interests.

Schraut said he wouldn't allow what he considered to be inappropriate material on the billboard, which currently carries ads for Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Que and state Rep. David Russell, R-Brooksville.

He added that the tone of the comments by trustees at the meeting was needlessly inflammatory.

"This is not the way I go to the negotiating table," he said, "for someone to try to throw dirt and then say, 'Hey work with me.' "

Schraut said he will have his lawyers review a tape of the meeting. "It kind of irks me after all we were able to do," he said. "The property was appraised for about $150,000 more than they paid for it. Usually it's the other way around."

PHCC President Robert Judson and Parker said the billboard, while important, is not enough to derail the pending sale.

"My main concern at this point in time is to move forward," Parker said. "It's needed desperately. We have too many students waiting on this campus. Whether (Schraut) did something he shouldn't have will have to be determined at a later date."

Judson said he expects trustees to vote to close on the property at their April 24 meeting.

- Staff Writer Ryan Davis contributed to this report.

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