ST. PETERSBURG — Owners of waterfront property off Smacks Bayou who were shocked to learn their docks and the water underneath might be owned by someone else got what appeared to be good news this week.
A St. Petersburg real estate lawyer says he has evidence that the submerged land abutting their property and claimed by a mysterious trust might actually belong to the city and that homeowners have the right to build and own their docks.
Whether Traveler's Affiliated Land Trust, which bought the submerged land three years ago from a local developer, agrees is another matter. Largo lawyer Joseph N. Perlman, the trust's representative, has not returned calls from the Tampa Bay Times.
Meanwhile, after reviewing its records, St. Petersburg believes that it owns much of the property, said Bruce Grimes, the city's director of real estate and property management.
"It appears we own a lot of that property,'' he said of the recent discovery. "We have a deed to support that."
Grimes pointed out that a quit claim deed that gave Traveler's the submerged lands, states that lands owned by the city are not included. He added that documentation has also been found dating back to 1961 showing that the city sent information about its ownership to Pinellas County to make sure that the property would not be taxed.
Pinellas County Property Appraiser's records, though, show that the Smacks Bayou submerged land is owned by the trust, an issue that has been getting a lot of attention in recent weeks, said Charles Dye, assistant deputy for land records for the Pinellas County Property Appraiser's office.
"I have had several calls from the homeowners' association and from private entities. We know of it, but we don't have an answer. It will probably have to go to court," Dye said. "I can't give legal advice and I can't arbitrate differences in ownership as to who has ownership of this."
Tuesday evening, dozens of homeowners from Northeast Park, Eden Isles and Snell Isle Estates neighborhoods gathered in an auditorium at Northeast Presbyterian Church to hear what Chris Sanders, a St. Petersburg lawyer, had discovered.
He explained that he had contacted Perlman and got him to forward documents related to his client's claim to the Smacks Bayou underwater property.
"We have analyzed all of that information. Our position is that what they believe they own is not what they actually own," Sanders said in an interview.
Instead, he said, developers of Northeast Park and Snell Isle Estates transferred the bulk of the submerged lands to the city of St. Petersburg by quit claim deed on Nov. 29, 1960. Only one piece, an area south of Eden Isle, was excluded, Sanders said.
"By virtue of that deed, it is our position that the city of St. Petersburg actually owns the submerged land fronting Northeast Park and Snell Isle Estates," Sanders told the Times.
According to the documents, owners of waterfront property were given exclusive right to use the waterfront and build and maintain private docks.
Traveler's Affiliated Land Trust, Sanders said, appears to own a tiny fraction of the submerged land, though owners of waterfront property in that area have the rights to their docks.
Homeowners, some of whom have put up no-trespassing signs on their docks since learning of the Traveler's claim, left the meeting ready to contest the trust's ownership. There was talk of pooling money to help fund further research and even legal action.
Tony Davis, who has lived in Northeast Park for 18 years, is optimistic.
"I'm feeling that we may not have much to worry about," he said. "The thing that makes me confident is who my neighbors are. Quite a few of the small-business owners in Tampa Bay live here. These people are ready to move forward. This goes against everything that you were ever taught as a child about doing the right thing. Just because you can do something legally doesn't mean you should."
In recent weeks, the trust put the dock at one home for sale, asking for $7,800.
"This is a separate property from the adjacent home and residential lot," it said on a real estate website. "We purchased this submerged land in anticipation of moving to St. Petersburg, and buying a home on 37th Ave NE. However, we have decided to stay in Canada full time."
Perlman Realty is the listing agent.
Cliff Gephart of GreenLeaf Title and Steven Coderre of Goldman Morgan Real Estate say they are researching the submerged land issue for two property owners.
"We are also investigating the legalities of the ownership," said Gephart, who said he wants to right a wrong. "Our research will be complete within a couple of days dating back to the 1930s, of which we are going to share with all the homeowners … to curtail this outright ridiculousness of attempted land ownership."
People have been scared, said John Fullerton, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate on Fourth Street N. A Northeast Park resident, he organized this week's meeting.
"The feedback I've been getting is that buyers have been frightened about buying in Northeast Park, Eden Isle and Snell Isle Estates because they wouldn't be able to use their docks," he said. "It's already affected the people who have their houses ready to sell. … I've put a no-trespassing sign on our docks because I don't want anyone putting a fence across my dock."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.