ST. PETERSBURG — Waterfront homeowners in the Northeast Park neighborhood are imploring elected leaders for help in their fight to stave off a trust's claim to their docks and the submerged land beneath.
A few weeks ago they learned that Traveler's Affiliated Land Trust had taken ownership of a large expanse of Smacks Bayou abutting their properties and has been trying to sell at least one dock separately from its adjacent home and land.
"Secure your waterfront rights through ownership," a listing on the Zillow website reads in part for "submerged land and dock directly behind 1175 37th Ave. NE." The price is $7,800. According to the Pinellas County Property Appraiser, the trust paid $1,300 for the entire swath of Smacks Bayou submerged property.
"Access may only be available by water, unless you own the adjacent residence," the listing continues. "We purchased this submerged land in anticipation of moving to St. Petersburg, and buying a home on 37th Avenue NE. However, we have decided to stay in Canada full time."
Largo lawyer Joseph N. Perlman, who represents the trust, has not returned calls for comment.
The news sent property owners scrambling, with some even posting "no trespassing" signs on their docks. About 103 waterfront homes in the neighborhood might be affected, said Scott Willis, the neighborhood association's president.
The association held a special meeting Monday and asked the city to step in after a group of real estate professionals came forward with what they say is proof that the city — not the trust — owns the land in question.
St. Petersburg City Council Chairman Bill Dudley and council member Darden Rice attended. Dudley said he was told by the city's chief assistant attorney, Mark Winn, that the "city didn't have a dog in the fight."
But Dudley promised the dozens of homeowners gathered at North East Park Baptist Church that he was "going to drop this on (Mayor Rick Kriseman's) lap."
On Tuesday, Dudley said the mayor assured him that he would look into it: "He said if we have a part in it, we will do what we need to do."
Bruce Grimes, St. Petersburg's director of real estate and property management, has told the Tampa Bay Times that the city has a deed to support its ownership of most of the land claimed by the mysterious trust.
State Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, also pledged his help. Though Property Appraiser Pam Dubov might be reluctant "to jump into this," the lawmaker said he would try to "encourage her to get into this thing, sooner rather than later."
It is uncertain how quickly the matter can be resolved. The property appraiser's records show Traveler's Affiliated Land Trust as the owner of the submerged lands, though documents submitted to Dubov's office by St. Petersburg real estate lawyer Chris Sanders claim the city has ownership.
"Our land records department has looked at the various deeds and documents provided by Mr. Sanders, but based on those, we haven't determined that a change is appropriate at this point," said Amanda Coffey, deputy for government affairs and staff counsel in Dubov's office.
Coffey said it would be up to the courts to settle an ownership dispute.
Cliff Gephart and C. Byron Stout III, owners of GreenLeaf Title, and Steven Coderre of Goldman Morgan Real Estate handed out fliers to homeowners on Monday with information about a website on which they've posted their research proving the property belongs to the city.
"We went back to 1946. What we found is that either the plat book or the quit claim deed in 1960 conveyed most, if not all, of the submerged lands to the city," Gephart said. "We believe that the property appraiser should correct the records to accurately reflect the city's ownership."
The homeowners have started to pitch in $100 apiece in case they need to take legal action.
"I think everybody is going to give the city a chance to step in and claim the property and try and rectify the situation at the county," Sanders said.