James Pasco Jr.'s front door doesn't open to a long walkway, a lawn or a sidewalk.
"When he opens his door," attorney Bryan Kutchins said, "he's at the side of the road."
About 26 years ago, the city of Oldsmar paved across Pasco's front yard. At the time, he said, a city official told him that Oldsmar had the legal right to do so. He wouldn't find out the truth until the mid 2000s.
Pasco, 55, said the city should compensate him for "taking" his property. He wants Oldsmar to move his house back at least 20 feet and if it can't do that, tear it down and build him a new one.
"I would like to see the injustice that occurred back in '84 rectified," he said. "They intentionally dove right into my property."
A judge will probably decide what, if any, remedies are due Pasco. This local spat has landed on a federal court docket.
Jay Daigneault, who represents Oldsmar in the Pasco case, initially agreed to a face-to-face interview with a St. Petersburg Times reporter, rescheduled, canceled, then told his assistant that he would issue no comment.
The information in this story comes from 11 volumes of court files and interviews with Pasco, his wife and Kutchins, the onetime city attorney who represents the couple.
West Douglas Road used to be a one-lane shell strip. It is the traditional home to the city's black community. James and Betty Pasco have owned a home there for three decades. In 1984, Oldsmar used nearly $71,000 in community development block grant funds, money typically used to improve blighted areas, to pave the road and complete other improvements.
Former public service director William Houman said he consulted one person — Lorenzo Hayes, the first black chief of the city's Fire Department — to see if the black community wanted the road resurfaced.
"We asked Lorenzo if he would help the city in asking those people if they wanted a resurfaced road," he said in his Oct. 21, 2008, deposition. "And as it turned out, they all agreed that it would be nice."
Pasco doesn't remember it that way. He said he had concerns when the design of the road changed and voiced them to Houman. Instead of following the path of the existing shell road, the new road was set to cut through his property. Nothing in the court files offers an explanation for the road plan change.
According to Pasco, Houman told him that Oldsmar had an easement right of way that allowed the road to go across his home, something Pasco did not verify for himself. At the time, Pasco worked for the city's street department. Houman allegedly threatened to fire him or have his house moved if he continued to ask questions. Married with five children, Pasco said he didn't want to jeopardize the city job that put food on the table. Out of necessity, he said he withdrew his objections.
For two decades, Pasco said little about the road.
Houman said he never threatened Pasco, whose family has been entangled in a number of bitter exchanges and disputes with Oldsmar through the years.
He doesn't even remember an exchange with the man. His own words on city letterhead tell a different story. Found in the court files is this Jan. 30, 1984, note from Houman to Pasco:
This letter is to acknowledge our conversation concerning the Douglas Road improvements at your property. Because of the change in road design and its proximity to your home you will be able to expand the existing structure within newly created setbacks.
• • •
It wasn't until 2003 or 2004, after an insurance company built its Tampa Road office across from his home, that Pasco learned Oldsmar didn't have the right to build on his property. The city owned only a utility right of way on the property, not an easement right of way.
"They're like night and day," Kutchins said. "You have road easements, drainage easements, light pole easements and they have to be recorded in the public record. There's no recorded road right of way."
Pasco went to the March 2, 2004, meeting of the Oldsmar City Council and handed each member a letter that he read aloud.
"I have less than 10 feet of property before the road," Pasco told them. "My front yard has been forever scarred. And I have been paying taxes on my property that the city has been using for its own personal use."
He told the council members that Oldsmar owed him all he'd paid in taxes, plus interest and penalties — nearly $312,000 at the time, according to his estimate.
"Now how long will it be for you to contact me?" he asked them.
City Manager Bruce Haddock said in a September 2009 deposition that Pasco was "grandstanding" at the meeting. He also said the city verified the easement discrepancy in 2005 or 2006.
Kutchins: Having learned that there was no easement for the road across the Pascos' property, did you take any action of any sort based upon that new knowledge?
Kutchins: Do you recall advising any of the council members that the city had no easement rights or right of way rights on their front yard property?
Haddock: I don't recall if, you know, I specifically informed them of that point or not.
• • •
After the 2004 council meeting, Pasco said, "Nobody — not one — called me or said anything. I was left to do one thing: seek justice."
It wasn't the first time that Pasco and the city turned to the courts to resolve a dispute.
Oldsmar accused Pasco of running a junkyard and automobile repair business on his property and sued him in September 1999. The city lost.
Pasco family members have previously wrangled with the city over water and sewer bills, code enforcement issues, the lack of diversity within the city's workforce and personnel issues.
After the street department, Pasco spent 12 years as a city firefighter. His tenure was riddled with demotions, suspensions and reprimands. His personnel file, more than 6 inches thick, contains accusations that he failed to respond to fires, often left work for hours without telling anyone where he was and dumped city trash on private property.
The latter offense almost cost him his job. Oldsmar Fire Chief Scott McGuff fired him, then the city grievance board reinstated him.
He resigned in 1995 "due to religious obligations." He is the bishop of Community Holiness Church of God for All People. Later, he said he was forced to resign because he was black and a pair of fire department officers wanted him out. An internal investigation found no wrongdoing.
He filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but the EEOC didn't pursue it.
• • •
Pasco said he didn't want to sue Oldsmar over the road.
"If they had sat down and talked with me and treated me like I was a citizen of the city of Oldsmar," he said, "this would have never carried this far."
In August 2005, eight months after he and his wife filed suit in December 2004, the city tried to settle: $250 for James Pasco, $250 for Betty Pasco. They turned down the offer and eventually lost because of a technicality. Florida law deems a road public if it has been maintained or repaired continuously and uninterruptedly for four years.
Asked if Oldsmar had maintained the road since it was constructed, James and Betty Pasco, through their attorney, said yes. They didn't clarify until later that, according to their recollection, the city had swept the street only once, in 1999, and cleaned out a drain once in 2003.
A 2nd District Court of Appeal judge reversed the lower court's ruling in 2007.
The city tried to settle again, this time for $9,000. Betty Pasco walked out of negotiations, but her husband and their attorney stayed behind. They initially agreed to the terms of the settlement, then rescinded because Betty Pasco was not present to agree to anything.
Haddock said "the Pascos double-crossed" Oldsmar.
"When the lawsuit is over and everything is gone," Betty Pasco said, "we're left with nothing if we don't get something to help us."
The Pascos and the city entered another round of mediation. In 2009, both sides reached an impasse and a judge ordered the case back to trial in early 2010.
Then last month, the city requested the case be removed from the state level to the federal level.
Kutchins called the request a stalling tactic and has filed his own motion asking that the case be sent back to the lower level. "The city is facing its day of reckoning with a trial coming up and in a last-ditch effort, they have filed a notice of removal to federal court," he said.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Rodney Thrash can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4167.