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Hillsborough residents sue Pinellas County over a lake that's flooding their land

ODESSA

Residents along Tyler Run Avenue were supposed to end up with waterfront property when the Pinellas County government created a lake in the northwest corner of Hillsborough County.

As it turned out, their property essentially became the lake, especially during the rainy season.

Karen Murphy and her sister, Dianne Campbell, live in the house Murphy has owned for 25 years, in a lifestyle now that Campbell said is more like camping. They say they never use the dishwasher anymore — the water backs up from the septic tank. They don't shower and do laundry on the same day. And they don't flush the toilet every time they use it.

Donna Baldwin, who lives west of them — her property abuts the county line — drives an all-terrain vehicle through knee-deep water in her driveway to get to her house. The stench of muck hangs in the air. Her two barns are flooded, even three weeks after the last rain. She said that makes it impossible for her to board horses, the source of a potential $1,800 in extra income per month.

Ron Jacobs, another neighbor, said flooding has taken away land on which his cattle graze.

The three property owners have filed lawsuits against Pinellas County in Hillsborough Circuit Court, seeking damage compensation in an "inverse condemnation'' case, the unlawful taking of the residents' property. Their Clearwater lawyer, John M. Le­Roux, has also accused Pinellas County of breach of contract.

LeRoux said the lake was designed to remain at a level of 22 feet, but he doubts it has been at that level since 2010.

"We had it surveyed in October of last year and I think it was 24.75 feet, so it's 2 3/4 feet higher than it was designed to be at that time," he said. "Then we had it surveyed again this year for the water level, and I believe it was 25-plus.''

The lake apparently doesn't drain. "I don't know if it's a design flaw that's doing this,'' LeRoux said. "We're not real positive.''

A lawyer representing Pinellas County filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that it does not make a sufficient case for inverse condemnation because the property wasn't actually taken, but turned over to Pinellas through a contract, on which the statute of limitations for suing has expired. The motion also states that the case should properly be tried in Pinellas County, not Hillsborough.

Christy Pemberton of the Pinellas County Attorney's Office said the office does not comment on pending litigation.

The property at the center of the suit has been a legal money pit for Pinellas County for more than 30 years. In 1982, Pinellas sued three brothers — Charles, Billy and James Martin — charging that the land they were using as a fill dirt borrow pit and dump was contaminating a nearby well field that was a source of Pinellas' drinking water.

Widespread pollution was never found, however, and as a result of the settlement 16 years later, Pinellas paid the Martins $1.5 million for their 80 acres. By that time, Pinellas taxpayers had spent about $9 million pressing the lawsuit.

By agreement with Hillsborough County and state environmental protection authorities, Pinellas agreed to turn the property into a lake with graded slopes for possible sale eventually to a developer.

Pinellas sought permission from Baldwin, Murphy and Ron and Sharon Jacobs to use 75 feet of their property so that it could properly grade the slope. Under the agreement, LeRoux said, Pinellas would give the property back to his clients after the work was done and also grant them ownership of land underwater, so they could build docks.

Jacobs said the lawyer they consulted at the time said they would be crazy not to sign the agreement.

Baldwin said they talked about the huge boost in value lakefront property would bring.

"But the land now is so contaminated and so eroded you couldn't give it away,'' she said.

She showed pictures taken during the worst of the flooding. "This is my driveway. This is my 3-year-old granddaughter in a kayak going across the driveway. This is us on horseback with bags of groceries 'cause we couldn't get through with a vehicle.''

Murphy said it seems to get worse every year.

"This past year it flooded so much across my entire front yard to the front porch, all the way up to the garage. I was scared to get my car out. Ronnie came over and said if you don't go too fast, you might be able to make it through.''

They invested in extra high rubber boots and, until the water finally subsided, transported groceries from the car to their door inside their recycling cart.

Philip Morgan can be reached at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3435.

Hillsborough residents sue Pinellas County over a lake that's flooding their land 11/27/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 27, 2013 2:21pm]
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