ST. PETERSBURG — Owners of waterfront property in the Northeast Park neighborhood are learning they might not own the docks in their back yards or the submerged land beneath.
The revelation comes three years after an entity named Traveler's Affiliated Land Trust scooped up an expanse of Smacks Bayou abutting their properties.
For at least two homeowners, the split ownership came to light when they tried to sell their homes.
"It's safe to say that a lot of people who own waterfront property, that their property rights don't extend as far as they think," said Paul Boudreaux, a professor specializing in natural resources law at Stetson University College of Law.
He said anyone buying on the waterfront should hire a lawyer or a title insurance company to research property records. "It's just like a dividing line on dry land," he said. "There is no way you can know unless you look at each individual property."
In at least three instances, real estate websites list just a home's dock for sale.
"Submerged land and dock directly behind 1175 37th Ave. NE," one listing says. "Secure your waterfront rights through ownership. 100-year lease also possible. ... Access may only be available by water, unless you own the adjacent residence. 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."
The price is $7,800. Traveler's Affiliated Land Trust paid $1,300 for all of the submerged property it owns on Smacks Bayou. Perlman Realty is the listing agent. Largo lawyer Joseph N. Perlman, who represents the trust, did not return calls from the Tampa Bay Times.
Scott Willis, president of the Northeast Park Neighborhood Association, is concerned. He said the situation could affect 103 waterfront homes in his neighborhood and others beyond.
"The bottom line is, it just doesn't seem fair to me that homeowners have learned about this issue after they have been using their dock for years and years, even after people have gotten permits to change and improve docks," he said.
Vice president Cheryl Greenwood, who is also a Realtor with Watts Realty Group, notified the neighborhood about the situation by email. "It's a concern, because we don't know how it's going to affect the real estate value," she said.
The neighborhood association will discuss the problem at its May meeting.
Willis, who has lived at his waterfront home across from Crisp Park for 19 years, is contending with his own discovery. The submerged land under his dock belongs to the city of St. Petersburg, which requires that he sign a three-year agreement for $250 "to occupy and utilize" city property.
St. Petersburg also acquired additional submerged land nearby, but an agreement with the sellers allows homeowners to build docks, though they don't own the submerged property beneath, Bruce Grimes, the city's director of real estate and property management, said. Unlike Willis, they are not required to sign an agreement with the city.
An age-old issue
Vexing submerged land issues can be traced to a history of dredging, manmade uplands, carved-out waterfronts, outraged environmentalists and subsequent state law.
Government policies are rooted in principles that date back to the Roman Empire and make navigable waters, such as the ocean, gulf and rivers, public property, Boudreaux said.
"When Florida became a state in 1845, the state got ownership of the land beneath those waters, but for over a century … took the attitude that we want people to use the shorelines, we want people to build docks, to fill in muddy shorelines. And the government often sold these submerged lands to private owners," he said.
"One famous example of that was in St. Petersburg, in Tierra Verde. That was all underwater 100 years ago, but it was fairly shallow. They got permission from the government, filled it in and created private property."
"The golden era of dredging," said James Schnur, president of the Pinellas County Historical Society, began in 1920s and continued through the late 1960s, when "there was a clarion call that we really shouldn't be doing this."
"If you were driving on Beach Drive in 1908, you were driving on the beach. North Shore Park, the Vinoy are on dredged land. Everything to the east of Beach Drive is on dredged land. Much of Eckerd College was built on submerged land. Albert Whitted was built on dredged land," he said.
The state began to halt most of its sales of submerged land in the 1970s, instituting leases for projects such as marinas, bridges and bulkheads.
Controversy over submerged lands and the real estate speculators drawn to them is nothing new. In 2002, a Valrico man, the late Don Connolly, paid about $1,000 for a tax deed to a band of land around a lake in the East Lake area, erected a pink fence on the shoreline and offered to sell the land and waterfront view back to homeowners for $30,000 apiece.
Recently Attorney General Pam Bondi sued a St. Petersburg couple, Rick and Kelly Ware, over submerged land in Coffee Pot Bayou that the state asserts belongs to taxpayers.
And on Smacks Bayou, Willis is wondering why he got official permission to build a new dock if the land under it didn't belong to him.
Dave Goodwin, St. Petersburg's director of planning and economic development, said the city reviews dock permits from the county for setbacks and design standards. "And that's all we do," he said. "The county is the dock-issuing authority in Pinellas County."
David Walker, an environmental program manager for Pinellas County, said municipalities look for "appropriate use, setbacks to the property, zoning type stuff," while the county considers broader issues like environmental impact, navigational issues and public safety. "Our code is silent on submerged land. We are not even looking for that. It's just not a review criterion for us," he said.
The Smacks Bayou property owned by Traveler's Affiliated Land Trust was previously owned by the Belleair Development Group. Before that, it belonged to the Crisp Co., whose St. Petersburg roots went back to 1930s.
Belleair Development bought the property from Crisp for $800 to build docks for an apartment complex it was trying to buy, Belleair president Carlos Yepes said.
"We bought it for peanuts and we sold it for peanuts. In fact, at one point, we didn't want to sell it to" Traveler's, he said. "They ended up trying to enforce the contract. It was unclear to us what they wanted to do with it."
For homeowners, buying or leasing the right to use the docks they thought belonged to them might make the most sense, law professor Boudreaux said. "Submerged lands are most valuable to the person who owns the adjacent dry land," he said.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.