Foreclosure suit filed against Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary property

INDIAN SHORES — The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, already plagued with money problems, is facing yet another financial crisis.

A creditor has filed suit to foreclose on land the sanctuary owns at 12388 Starkey Road near Largo.

The creditor, Ronald J. Cooper, alleges the sanctuary and its founder/director Ralph Heath owe him $550,000 for not repaying the loan. Cooper is also asking for unpaid interest, damages and attorney fees. He also wants the land to be sold at a foreclosure sale.

The sanctuary bought the land for $550,000 in December 1997, according to Pinellas County property records. The Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Office estimates the current market value of the 2.23 acres, which the sanctuary uses for storage, at about $957,500.

Neither Heath nor his attorney, David Platte of Clearwater, could be reached Thursday for comment. But Cooper's attorney, Peter Vasti of St. Petersburg, said the parties are trying to work out a solution.

"It's a spirit of cooperation right now," Vasti said.

According to court records, the sanctuary borrowed $550,000 in November 2009 from CD Roco LLC. The sanctuary and Heath promised to pay $5,500 a month in interest until November 2011, when the loan would come due. At that time, they were supposed to pay back the $550,000.

Interest payments were made until late 2011, about the time the full payment was due. Vasti said his client, who now holds the mortgage, has received no money since then. Cooper finally decided to sue, he said, to protect his interests when he discovered the federal government last year filed tax liens against the sanctuary.

Cooper, he said, "has been patient for such a long period of time" and had "no choice" but to file suit to protect his investment.

Heath, 67, founded the sanctuary in 1971. It has a reputation the world over as a model avian rehabilitation center. The sanctuary, 18328 Gulf Blvd., is supported by private donations. Records filed with the Internal Revenue Service show the sanctuary had total revenues of about $1.47 million and total expenses of about $1.44 million for the 2010 calendar year, the most recent figures available. It's unclear how many employees currently work there.

But the sanctuary has had problems over the years. Many times those centered on money issues. In 2007, for example, the sanctuary was forced to close for two days after it failed to pay workers' compensation insurance. Three years later, the sanctuary hit rough financial times caused in part by the recession and escalating costs. There was talk of drastically cutting back its services.

Just last year, the IRS filed three tax liens totaling about $187,700 for unpaid payroll taxes. Heath blamed the slow pace of donations. Those remain unpaid, according to Pinellas County records.

In November, the U.S. Department of Labor found that the sanctuary violated minimum wage and overtime laws. The sanctuary agreed to pay nine employees a total of $21,336. It is unclear if those payments have been made.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

by the numbers

$550,000 Amount the sanctuary borrowed in 2009.

$957,500 Current market value of the 2.23-acre property.

Nov. 2011 Due date for loan, still unpaid.

Foreclosure suit filed against Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary property 01/24/13 [Last modified: Thursday, January 24, 2013 11:16pm]

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