HOLIDAY — The secretive land trust that bought a strip of land behind nine Aloha Gardens homes has stepped up its sales pitch to residents, telling them the land could be used for boat storage, sod removal and even a ministry for homeless people.
Residents say they doubt some of the claims made in the latest letter from the (818) 239-2215 Land Trust. The property, after all, is only 20 feet wide and runs behind some houses.
"I felt like they're trying to put some fear in us," said resident Sue Smiley. "They're trying to make me think they're going to put homeless people in my back yard."
But residents say the letter, which they received Thursday and was postmarked in Los Angeles, is just one more headache as they deal with a faceless organization that now owns land they'd always assumed was part of their back yards.
"I got the workaday problems of everybody else," said resident Bill Cody. "It's just something I don't need to deal with. It stinks to high heaven."
The 818 Land Trust in March bought tax deeds to three oddly shaped parcels in Pasco County. The trust's representative is Largo lawyer Joseph Perlman, but little else about the makeup of the group is clear.
Residents who live near those three properties have said the trust is trying to bully them into buying the lands back at higher prices. Last month, the residents along one of those parcels, a 600-foot-long private road in Zephyrhills, bought the road, netting the trust a $2,700 profit.
Before that sale, someone using the trust's e-mail address logged into an online chat room to mull over its strategy in Zephyrhills.
"How do I get the residents to feel compelled to purchase (the road) for as much as possible?" asked the April 5 posting at legalspring.com.
The ideas the trust put forth in that posting? Say it would offer the road for free boat storage. Look for people who want to use the road to "drag race." Consider allowing homeless people to live there.
Enter the latest letter to Aloha Gardens. In the letter to residents, the trust says its preference is to sell homeowners the land, which is listed for $25,000 on Craigslist, the online advertising site. The trust paid $1,146.85 for the tax deed to the property.
The trust would lower its price to homeowners to $7,200, according to Bill Smith, who says he's a Hillsborough County resident. (Smith, who on Monday billed himself as peacemaker between the trust and residents, said the trust has since asked him to apply for a position on its board.)
But the letter also says that the trust has heard from people who want to store boats and recreational vehicles and use the land to harvest sod. It says it's also been contacted by two different religious groups that want to use the property for different services, including ministering to the homeless.
Whether any of these plans would meet county zoning codes is questionable.
The trust says it will "more aggressively market this parcel," blaming that decision on the Pasco Times' coverage of the issue and on resident Sam Dennewitz's refusal to lease the property for $30 a month for a shed he has been using on the site.
"We will gladly entertain any offers ... that will prevent this property from falling into the hands of anyone other than our neighboring homeowners," the letters say.
State Sen. Mike Fasano, who was contacted by one resident about the letters, said the correspondence amounts to intimidation over what is, to anyone other than the homeowners, a worthless piece of property.
"This is nothing but scare tactics," he said. "You wonder how these people sleep at night."
Could the letter qualify as extortion? J. Larry Hart, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor who was provided a copy of the letter by the Times, said the contents of the letter alone would not likely meet the legal definition of extortion.
But he said it raised enough "red flags" that might warrant a closer look from investigators, who would have to look at the entire situation, including phone calls and other letters.
"I certainly think there are a lot of things that could raise the eyebrow of a skilled investigator," he said.
Though the letter does not explicitly make a threat about what will happen to people's properties, he said, "They want the reader to formulate the threat."
Smith, speaking on the land trust's behalf, said the sales price to homeowners was fair, so how could it be extortion? "I think the trust has been more than generous," he said.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.