The mysterious phone calls and cryptic letters came in early March, directed at homeowners along a 600-foot-long private road.
The message: The road did not belong, as residents thought, to them. Something called the "(818) 239-2215 Land Trust" claimed ownership, and the trust said they could no longer use the road.
"We will accommodate your need to access your property but not via Plaza View Drive," the letter said. "You may want to coordinate the clearing and paving of this new route with your neighbors."
New route? There was no other way for residents to get home. And when they tried to find out who was behind all this, they got another surprise:
They could not find out.
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Neighbors talked about the calls from a trust representative who refused to reveal his name and the letters that didn't reveal his intentions. Anxiety followed incredulity.
They wondered whether they should move their mailboxes and their shrubs. They pondered how they might get to their driveways if their road — which they had used for nearly 30 years, which they even paid to have paved — were closed to them.
"I could just see a chain fence going up," said resident Wayne Roggow, "and them telling us we're out of luck."
It got worse. One of the neighbors discovered the new owners had put the road up for sale on craigslist, the on-line advertising site.
"You can own a road in Zephyrhills Florida," said the ad, posted on March 15. "Unlimited possibilities."
Not long after that discovery, some of the neighbors started getting phone calls from the 818 trust again. Lloyd Schnur, a snowbird from Pennsylvania, was one of them.
This time the caller called himself "John Hinson," Schnur said, and wondered if the nearly 15 homeowners wanted to buy the road.
Say, $1,000 per home?
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Florida's history is full of the colorful exploits of real estate speculators, few of whom are as colorful as the late Don Connolly, the "pink fence" guy in Pinellas County.
Connolly would buy slivers of land at county tax deed auction and try to sell them back to neighbors at inflated prices. He had a knack for strategy: In 2002, he paid about $1,000 for a tax deed to a lake bottom in a wealthy neighborhood. Then he erected a pink fence on the shoreline and demanded $450,000 from nearby homeowners to get their views back.
What happened in Pasco County in March reminded local observers of the pink fence case. Just days before the phone calls started to Plaza View Drive residents, a man named Jeremiah Jay walked into the Pasco Clerk of Circuit Court office in Dade City.
Jay told employees that he was a courier for the (818) 239-2215 Land Trust. His task was to buy on the trust's behalf three tax deeds from the county's list of lands available for public sale.
Properties end up on that list after the owners stop paying their taxes.
The properties Jay was interested in were added to the list in 2001 — three years before a state law that would have required the county to notify nearby property owners when certain land, like common elements of a subdivision, go up for tax deed sale.
Using a combination of cash and checks, the trust paid nearly $4,000 for three deeds: A strip of land in Colonial Hills, another in Aloha Gardens and the Zephyrhills road. (Unbeknownst to Plaza View Drive residents, the original developer of their neighborhood had kept the road in his family's name.)
No name appeared on the tax deeds except for that of the trust's representative, Largo lawyer Joseph Perlman.
Because of county development codes, none of the properties can be used for much.
The trust "can't do anything," county zoning administrator Debra Zampetti said, "except drive these people crazy."
The 818 land trust, it turned out, had people worked up on the west side of the county, too.
Over in Colonial Hills, Paulette and Wilfred Ares got a phone call from the 818 number shortly after the trust purchased a 10-foot-wide strip of land between their yard and Peacock Drive.
"He said, 'I'd be happy to sell it to you for $7,000 or $8,000 if you do it quick," Paulette Ares recalled. Otherwise, "He said he'd dig up the grass and sell it for sod." She told him to forget about it.
In Aloha Gardens, residents on Bigelow Drive got letters informing them that the portion of their backyard they had always assumed was part of a utility easement had been purchased by the 818 land trust.
Sam Dennewitz, an Aloha Gardens resident, said the man calling from the 818 land trust "got real nasty" with him when he refused to move his shed, threatening to use the land for storage or run dogs on it if he didn't pay him $30 a month in rent.
"I don't care how you look at it," Dennewitz said. "It's extortion."
So who is behind this trust? Perlman, the lawyer, did not return several messages over a two-week period. And when a representative of the trust returned a message from the St. Petersburg Times, he or she used a relay service more typically used by people with hearing problems.
That meant an operator acted as an intermediary, typing a reporter's questions for the trust representative and reading aloud the representative's typed replies. The caller was never identified.
The representative told the Times that the trust members are based in Los Angeles; that the trust found Perlman through an Internet search of area real estate lawyers; that it didn't reveal identities because it wanted to keep its affairs private; that it used the relay phone service because it saved money and "is just my preference."
And this: Three trust members were in Pasco on a "pleasure trip" when they decided to drop by the county government center to see what tax deeds were for sale.
"We just wanted to learn how tax deeds work. We had never purchased them before," the representative said through the operator. "We were in Pasco County for only three days and …chose some (properties) that were affordable and seemed to be in a strategic position."
Back in Zephyrhills, on Plaza View Drive, neighbors talked with lawyers and county officials.
They learned that the trust was limited in what it could do with the road; it could not, for instance, block access to their homes.
They learned, too, they could take the trust to court and fight for a ruling that would say they had used the road for so many years that they are entitled to a special easement.
There was no need for them to pay the trust nearly $15,000 to get out of their lives.
Then one day last month, the 818 caller, who again identified himself as John Hinson, again called the Schnurs.
"He said, 'You know, I could put a drag strip in there,' " said Schnur.
Schnur told him to try it and see where he gets.
Then the caller asked Schnur if the neighbors would pay the county's appraised value of the road, $4,163. Schnur said they'd consider $4,000 — even.
"He said he'd take it back to the board of directors," Schnur said.
Legal fees a deterrent
That conversation turned into two meetings with Perlman at his Belcher Road office. Schnur and his wife, Joan, managed to put $4,000 of their own money into an account. Their neighbors committed to paying them back.
On April 17, the couple sealed the deal, signing the papers in Perlman's office. Now the road would be in all their names, with each homeowner owning a share.
"He made a $2,700 profit," Lloyd Schnur said of the trust "and did nothing."
The Schnurs said they realized they would have had a good legal case against any attempt to take away the road. But they also realized they might end up paying more than $4,000 in legal fees.
"I hated to pay him off, which is all you're doing," said Joan Schnur. "But this way we can rest easy."
In the relay call conversation with the Times, the trust representative said the Zephyrhills residents "got a deal, a great deal, on that property. The fact that we originally hoped to get more than we did but dropped the price drastically for the residents does not sound like extorting to me."
Is it Hinson or Doe?
No one can say for sure who has been on the other end of the phone with Pasco residents for the past two months. The trust representative told the Times that Hinson is "just a guy."
Lloyd Schnur said he's sure it hasn't been Perlman. He said that when he and his wife went to Perlman's office, he asked "Where's old John Hinson at?"
Perlman, he said, laughed.
" 'You mean John Doe?' "
On the second trip to the lawyer's office, Schnur asked Perlman where "John Doe" was that day.
"'He's probably on a boat,'" he recalled Perlman saying, " 'spending your money.'"
Trust strikes again
So Plaza View Drive residents got the trust out of their lives. But in Aloha Gardens, the trust is just getting started.
Last week, Dennewitz got a phone call from a Clearwater man, who had seen an ad for land on craigslist. The man got in touch with the group that posted the ad and learned he could even get some free aluminum for tearing down a shed.
Whose shed? Sam Dennewitz's.
The potential buyer called Dennewitz. That's when Dennewitz got on the Internet and found the ad.
"BACKYARDS!! — $25000," it says. "Our land trust owns the property and we hope to find someone who lives in the area of this parcel of Real Estate that may be effective at dealing with the surrounding property owners. It is not legal, moral, or ethical that these neighboring residents continue to use this property free of charge."
The ad says the neighbors will eventually want to sell their homes — and have that land as part of their back yards. "That along with other factors," says the ad, "makes this a good investment for a shrewd enough investor."
Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.