ST. PETERSBURG — It took five years, a relentless grass roots campaign and finally the help of a freshman legislator, but now Florida condominium dock owners no longer have to pay the state rent for the land under their docks.
Statewide, it means about $1.4 million in savings for condominium associations and thousands annually for the individual dock owner.
Dock owners in Pinellas County paid more than $229,000 in submerged land lease fees to the state last year, one of the highest amounts in Florida.
"We were just the little people, but we finally won the battle," Terri Pentek said Tuesday.
Pentek owns a condominium at Tierra Verde's Anchor Cove, which last year had to pay $17,000 to the state for the submerged land under its 94 docks.
That yearly fee was wiped away May 30 when Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a bill that gives condominium dock owners the same tax break that single-family home dock owners have enjoyed for years.
"This is a huge win for submerged land lease owners across our state and real relief from a very unfair tax," said State Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, who fought for the bill. "This levels the playing field for citizens living in multifamily homes and will ensure that they are treated like single-family homeowners."
The issue first arose in 2008 when Jack Pyle, a Tierra Verde condo owner, complained that his complex, the Village of Tierra Verde, had to pay $7,000 to lease the land under its 48 marina slips.
At the time, the Department of Environmental Protection was considering a 300 percent increase in submerged land lease fees that would have raised the Village's lease fee to $25,000 a year.
Pentek was recruited by Pyle to alert the state's 500-plus condominium associations to the pending tax hike.
She quickly took over management of the statewide campaign, established a nonprofit corporation, Florida Homeowners for Fair Treatment, built a website, collected donations and hired a lobbyist.
That effort resulted in more than 1,000 protest letters and 24,000 emails flooding the DEP office in Tallahassee.
Over the years, the group succeeded in heading off repeated proposed DEP lease fee increases, as well as a subsequent Senate bill that would have quadrupled dock lease fees, and continued to fight for equal treatment with single-family dock owners, who were exempted from the submerged land lease tax.
Last year, the group succeeded in getting the equivalent of a 10 percent reduction in the submerged land lease fees.
"It was a win, but it still was not fair," said Pentek.
She continued to raise money and even put in some of her own to pay the $15,000 to $18,000 annual cost to lobby the Legislature.
And even though her group has won, she urges condominium owners to keep following the issue.
"If we don't stay pro-active, somebody will try to repeal it," she said.
Pentek credits Peters for much of her group's success in eliminating the lease fees for condominium dock owners.
"I cannot say enough good things about her. She was like a bulldog and just would not give up," says Pentek, describing how Peters repeatedly met with DEP officials, state Cabinet members and even the governor.
"It was a battle of endurance," Peters said. "It was important to the people of Pinellas County, and the experience has made me a better legislator."
The eventual bill that passed the Legislature established a new formula, based on the number of units in a private multifamily development, for charging submerged land lease fees that appears to exempt virtually all privately owned condominium docks.
Submerged land lease fees will still apply to docks at marinas and hotels and those that are commercially rented at multifamily complexes, however.