St. Petersburg landowners sue over Pinellas Trail

ST. PETERSBURG — Cyclists and joggers glide by merrily on the Pinellas Trail, sucking in the fresh air.

Vito Farese grumbles.

His company, City Wide Mini-Storage, borders the trail extension that runs through St. Petersburg's industrial area into downtown. It was once a sleepy railroad track that Farese could drive over to navigate around the back of his warehouse.

Now, caged by a trailside wall, his customers must squeeze big trucks through pint-sized slots.

Frustration, and nothing to show for it.

"The trails operation devalued my business and my property," said Farese. "The thing about it is, it's a large building that takes up the whole block, so I have no access to the building with large trucks."

But what could he do?

Enter lawyer Thor Hearne. With some work, he said, there was money to be had.

Farese joined a lawsuit against the federal government, claiming it unfairly designated his land for the trail. So too did Seldon Whispell and his wife, Viola, who own Whispell's Foreign Cars on Third Avenue S.

The door is open for more.

"We've had others who have also contacted us," said Hearne, the suit's lead attorney. "There are about 100 different individuals and roughly 30 pieces of property. I anticipate having many of them."

The 1.85-mile stretch of the Pinellas Trail, north of Interstate 275 from 34th Street to just east of 16th Street, was an old CSX railway line. The railroad, dating to the early 1900s, had an easement to operate on the land owned by civilians.

With little business on the line, CSX abandoned the easement in June 2004. Under the federal Trails Act, the government then issued an order allowing the county to buy the space for a trail.

The trail extension sprouted up last year, celebrated by the community and the mayor.

But landowners argue that they should have regained control once the railroad gave up the easement. They don't want to close the trail. But they do want financial compensation, which they're seeking through the U.S. Federal Court of Claims.

Hearne, based in St. Louis and Washington, D.C., said the process is not uncommon. But it's expensive and can drag on.

"When the government comes in and does something like build a highway, they come and directly condemn your property and pay you up front," he said. "Here, they take your property, and if you want to be paid, you have to come to court and file a claim."

He's handling similar cases in Arizona, Michigan, Kansas and Missouri. Such cases often end in settlements, he said. More and more often, people are coming on board.

"Almost all of the landowners I talked to were aware of the fact that they should have owned the land," Hearne said. "What they didn't know was there was this procedure established to be compensated in the federal court."

So how much are we talking?

Every case is different, and appraisers on both sides determine the dollar signs based on many factors. One battle over another 2-mile stretch left landowners splitting a hefty figure.

$8 million.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

St. Petersburg landowners sue over Pinellas Trail 05/24/09 [Last modified: Sunday, May 24, 2009 9:32pm]

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