NEW PORT RICHEY — The strange phone calls returned last week, this time to senior citizens living at Magnolia Valley Estates.
The caller's message? The spring-fed pond behind eight homes is under new ownership. And the abutting residents now will have to pay to use that water to sprinkle their lawns. And the new owner is thinking about floating three houseboats on the pond.
Guess who is back.
The 818-239-2215 Land Trust on July 17 purchased Lake Jones, a 1 acre pond in Magnolia Valley. According to county land records, the trust, which has a Largo lawyer and claims to be California-based, paid $100 to a Hudson couple, Maurice and Billie Baeckeroot, who had owned it since 1982.
The secretive trust is well-known in Pasco County after it bought tax deeds to three properties this year then asked residents to pay them inflated prices or risk unappealing prospects, including turning a Zephyrhills road into a drag strip and an Aloha Gardens property into a homeless encampment.
But the handful of Magnolia Valley residents who have received the calls — this time from a female representative — say they are wise to the game.
"I said, 'Lady, don't push me,' " said Roger Bogers, 71, president of the Magnolia Valley Homeowners Association.
"I told her, 'You think we're old people you can run over?' " said resident Robert Gage, 80. " 'You're not going to do that.' "
Indeed, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot the trust can do with its latest investment. Magnolia Valley residents say they have no plans to pay the trust any money, and Bogers said he was even considering sending the trust a bill for nearly $500. Neighbors recently pooled their money to have the scum removed from the pond.
The Pasco County Attorney's Office thinks that a number of factors — including deed restrictions, county ordinances and a recorded plat dedicating the use of the lake to the public — will limit the trust's activities, said assistant county attorney Nicki Spirtos.
"We anticipate that, in the end, the current owner won't be able to change much of anything," said Spirtos.
And what the land trust actually bought is a deed to the pond bottom and some surrounding land, not the water itself.
In Florida, people don't privately own water "unless they captured it," said University of Florida law professor Richard Hamann. The trust can't charge people for using the water, he said, though it could, in theory, limit people's access to it if it owns enough shoreline.
Speaking, as usual, through an operator, the 818 trust representative on Wednesday declined to say how the trust found the pond.
As recently as July 23, county stormwater officials were speaking with Billie Baeckeroot about drainage problems at the pond, according to county spokesman Eric Keaton. People had complained that it smelled and was ugly.
The county sent Baeckeroot a letter on July 17 requesting that she maintain the pond, but officials have no regulatory authority to enforce the request, Keaton said.
The Baeckeroots paid $750 for the property at a tax deed sale in 1982, records show. Assessed at $33, the pond last year carried at tax bill of 45 cents.
Billie Baeckeroot has denied to the Pasco Times on two occasions any knowledge of selling the property but refuses to elaborate.
"I don't know anything about it!" she snapped Wednesday before hanging up on a reporter.
The couple's signatures appear on the quit claim deed. The trust's lawyer, Joseph Perlman of Largo, signed the deed on the trust's behalf.
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Despite the phone calls and an angry e-mail to a Realtor trying to sell a home in the neighborhood, there are also signs that the trust may tamp down its efforts in Magnolia Valley.
Late Tuesday, Bogers said he got a call from the female trust representative.
"She was so nice, oh my goodness," said Bogers. "She said 'Tell your neighbors we won't be getting in touch with them.' "
Never mind to the water charges and to the houseboats, she told him.
"I was kind of flabbergasted," he said. He thinks the trust realized the pond was more trouble than it was worth.
The trust representative told the Pasco Times on Wednesday that it had reached an amicable agreement with an "unnamed" resident.
"We agreed to let them (the neighbors) continue to use the pond and property as they have been for the foreseeable future," the representative said.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.