HOLIDAY — Just three weeks ago, Bigelow Drive residents thought they were close to buying a piece of important real estate: their back yards.
Their lawyer was talking to a lawyer for the 818 Land Trust, which owns the 20-foot-wide strip of land running behind their homes. The residents offered $1,146 — the same price the land trust had paid in March for the delinquent tax property — then waited on a counteroffer.
It came: $1.5-million.
And so the conflict with the anonymous land trust has escalated again after nearly a month of relative quiet in Aloha Gardens. Now it's back to the old routine: The land trust dispatches contractors to tear down a resident's shed on its property, and neighbors call sheriff's deputies, who broker a tenuous peace.
But residents say the trust has taken a creepier, meaner tone, including a new Web site featuring video footage of the backs of their homes. They worry about who is going to show up at their neighborhood next.
"At the end of any given day, there's not going to be a happy ending," said neighbor Bill Cody. "I haven't heard anything this bizarre in a long time. This guy is not only wanting money. He's also crazy."
Mid morning on Thursday, two 33-year-old Pinellas County men who had seen the trust's latest Craigslist ad about the shed drove up. They walked toward the shed on the trust's land, near Sam Dennewitz's side yard, and started pulling off the door.
Dennewitz, who stores equipment in the shed, saw them and called the authorities.
The shed has become a focal point of the entire Aloha Gardens dispute. At one point, Dennewitz offered to rent the property from the trust. But he changed his mind, he said, because he felt like he was being "extorted" and because he saw the shed as the last line of defense: Once the shed is removed, the trust could more easily access the rest of the property.
One of the two workers on the scene Thursday, John Heaston, said a trust representative had told them to take anything they wanted out of the shed and to document the scene with a camera. He said he changed his mind as soon as he arrived.
"There are some things not worth the money," he said as he hung back to stand with the neighbors who had gathered.
But his friend, David Hoover, was more persistent. He said he was committed to the project because he had the owner's permission.
What followed was nearly two hours of waiting and negotiating, phone calls with county officials, temper soothing. Dennewitz, who had started taking his tools out of the shed, said if they got rained on and ruined, he'd sue the land trust.
Ultimately, a code enforcement officer told the two men they needed contractors' licenses to dismantle the shed. Sheriff's deputies, not wanting to settle civil matters on the fly, said the owner needed a court order to remove the shed.
"The guy wants it done soon," said an exasperated Hoover. "He's just going to keep hiring people."
In a relay phone call, the land trust told the Pasco Times through an operator that the Sheriff's Office and county code officials were treating it unfairly and "making up rules on their own whims."
Back at the scene Thursday, Hoover answered his cell phone and leaned against his pickup, which bears a bumper sticker saying, "Lead Me Not into Temptation, I Can Find It Myself."
On the other line was someone from the trust, a "John Hinson," he later said.
"I'm ready to see it through, man," he told the caller. "I know you're going to keep pressing."
But not that day. The deputies asked him to move along, and he did.
Dennewitz, for his part, said he's through with his own protest. His sons are coming up this weekend, and they are going to help him clean out the shed. Then he'll just let the land trust come, tear it down and haul it away.
"Tired of this whole mess," he said. "It's gone from bad to worse."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.