Fight in Pasco with land trust gets weirder

HOLIDAY — The first work crew arrived Sunday morning. Sam Dennewitz looked out his window and knew they were coming for his shed.

"I was shocked," said Dennewitz, a 64-year-old military veteran. "Matter of fact, I said, 'If you touch my shed, I'll shoot.' "

They did not, and he did not. Instead, Dennewitz called the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and his neighbors, who dashed over to provide support.

Sunday mornings in Aloha Gardens haven't been the same since the secretive (818) 239-2215 Land Trust came on the scene in March.

The Pasco Times on Sunday reported the trust's purchase of tax deeds to three oddly shaped parcels in Pasco County, and what residents say have been the trust's subsequent attempts to bully them into paying inflated prices for the properties. The trust's representative is Largo lawyer Joseph Perlman, but little else about the makeup of the group is clear.

The tale grew stranger Monday, including new online ad posts from the trust and the emergence of a man named Bill Smith as a self-described "peacemaker" between the trust and Aloha Gardens residents.

• • •

One of the three properties the trust bought from the county's list of lands available for public sale — a collection of parcels for which previous owners stopped paying taxes — is a 20-foot-wide strip that runs behind nine Aloha Gardens homes. The others were a strip of land in Colonial Hills and a road in Zephyrhills.

All three properties hit the list in 2001. County officials were not under any legal obligation to notify adjacent property owners, though tax collector Mike Olson said Monday that his office is going to take the initiative to notify nearby owners in future cases, particularly when a road is involved.

In Aloha Gardens, neighbors had assumed the land was part of a utility easement and had been using it as part of their yards for decades, with no one ever telling them otherwise. (According to several land surveys that residents had performed on their properties, their yards include a 10-foot-wide drainage and utility easement. Beyond that easement is a 20-foot-wide parcel that says on some surveys "unplatted.")

Dennewitz has used a shed that is located on the property now owned by the 818 trust. He said it was there when he bought the home nearly a dozen years ago. He figured he could use it just like the last homeowner did.

An anonymous person calling from the land trust has been trying to get him to either start paying $30 a month in rent or move the shed. He has so far refused, saying the lease agreement would have made him liable for any accidents that occurred on the property. He said the caller from the trust turned "nasty" on him and threatened to use the land for storage and a dog run.

After seeing the Pasco Times story and photograph of Dennewitz, the trust on Sunday morning posted a new ad on Craigslist, the online advertising site, saying that a free, large aluminum shed was on its property and available for anyone who wants to sell it for scrap. The ad linked to the Times story and photo and thanked the newspaper for a "very clear, useful picture of this shed."

Albert Blackwell, a Largo resident with a scrap metal business, was part of the second crew to arrive at Dennewitz's home Sunday morning. He said he had no idea how complicated the situation was. He had just been looking for some extra cash.

"We got stuck in the middle," he said. "It's a bad deal for the guy."

The sheriff's deputy who arrived on the scene told Dennewitz that anyone who wanted to take down the shed would need to go through the court system.

• • •

Dennewitz is thinking about putting a sign that says that on the shed. He's expecting more visitors. About four days ago, a man who said his name is Bill Smith also showed up at Dennewitz's home.

When Dennewitz came out to talk with him, Smith said he was considering buying the property for $8,000.

But on second thought, Smith said he didn't think there was enough he could do with the property. He suggested Dennewitz and the other residents get together and offer to buy the property. He even got on his cell phone and called the 818 land trust to try to broker a deal.

"I did what I considered the Christian thing to do," Smith told the Times in a phone interview Monday. "I tried to make peace."

Smith, who says he first got in touch with the trust after seeing an ad to store boats on the Aloha Gardens property, said the land trust representative offered to sell the land to residents for $7,200, or $800 per home.

"In my opinion, I don't think this 818 trust, whatever a jerk he may be, is all that unreasonable," he said. He called Dennewitz a "crybaby."

Neighbors said Sunday they didn't know if they could afford $7,200, especially given that some homeowners have said they don't plan to contribute any money.

Whatever the case, Smith said the trust was happy to have him dealing with neighbors because he has a more personable manner. "He doesn't have much of a sales personality," he said of the representative, whose name he says he does not know. "He's kind of rude by nature."

• • •

The trust returned a message from the Times on Monday in the same way it handled a previous interview: through a relay service operator typically used by people who cannot hear or speak. The caller communicates by typing to the operator, so that his or her voice is never heard.

On Monday, the representative was eager to talk about the shed issue in Aloha Gardens.

"It was never his shed," the representative said. He or she called Dennewitz "a squatter, at best."

Funny thing about that shed, though. It isn't made of aluminum. It's made of tin.

Aluminum might have earned him about $200 at the recycling center, said Blackwell, the scrap metal collector.

Tin? "That would have made my gas money."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

>>Fast Facts

The story so far

In March, the (818) 239-2215 Land Trust bought three properties off a county list of land for public sale. The previous owners stopped paying taxes for those properties. The trust's three purchases totaled nearly $4,000. They included Plaza View Drive in Zephyrhills, a 10-foot-wide strip in Colonial Hills and the 20-foot-wide stretch of land running behind nine homes in Aloha Gardens. In Zephyrhills, Plaza View Drive residents banded together to buy back the road.

Fight in Pasco with land trust gets weirder 05/05/08 [Last modified: Saturday, May 10, 2008 1:18pm]

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