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State sues couple over ownership of submerged St. Petersburg property

ST. PETERSBURG — In a case that could affect waterfront property owners statewide, Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet have sued a St. Petersburg couple over their claim to submerged land in Coffee Pot Bayou.

The suit, filed by Attorney General Pam Bondi earlier this month, contends that the property has belonged to the taxpayers ever since Florida became a state in 1845.

Rick Ware, who says he and his wife, Kelly, have owned the property at 181 Brightwaters Blvd. NE since 2008, has been battling the state over ownership for several years. He's enlisted the help of Mayor Bill Foster and state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.

Foster said Monday that the city will intervene in the suit because it affects both the city's tax rolls and its own waterfront property ownership, including submerged land around the city marina and the Pier. Meanwhile, Brandes promised to talk to Scott's staff about resolving the case in Ware's favor.

"This is a gross overstep by the state to invalidate deeds going back 130 years," Brandes said.

Ware does not live on the Brightwaters property. He and his wife own a dock there. When they sought to extend it into the bayou, Department of Environmental Protection officials took the position that the submerged land is owned by the state.

That section of Coffee Pot Bayou was navigable in 1845, when Florida became a state, so it has been state property all along, the DEP contended. The state claims ownership of all land in Florida under navigable waterways.

Ware countered by pointing out that he had a chain of title going back more than a century. He traces the private ownership of that property back to 1883, when Florida sold 4 million acres to Hamilton Disston to help pay off debts dating back to the Civil War.

He's not alone. About 80 other property owners around the bayou are in the same boat, Ware contends — and like him, they've been paying taxes on their property. If the state succeeds in its suit, Foster said, "it takes these very valuable properties off the tax rolls." He estimated the loss to the city at $5 million, not to mention losing control of the city's own property.

The exchange of calls and emails between Ware and DEP officials over the disputed deed has grown particularly heated over the past year. Ware filed two complaints with the DEP's inspector general about staffers he accused of lying, but his complaints were ruled unfounded.

Ware said Monday that when he learned the state was suing him to get a judge to declare his title invalid, "I was surprised."

DEP press secretary Patrick Gillespie said the agency would have no comment on the case, and Jon Glogau, the attorney who filed the suit on behalf of Bondi's office, did not respond to a request for comment.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com

State sues couple over ownership of submerged St. Petersburg property 07/29/13 [Last modified: Monday, July 29, 2013 11:58pm]
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