A representative of the secretive 818 land trust spent Tuesday afternoon relaxing in a boat off the coast of Southern California — and denying that the trust's activities in Pasco County amount to extortion.
But extortion is how county Commissioner Michael Cox described the (818) 239-2215 Land Trust's $4,000 sale of a Zephyrhills road to the homeowners who need it to reach their properties.
"There's no doubt in my mind those people were extorted out of $4,000," Cox said at Tuesday's County Commission meeting in Dade City. "I don't think we want to allow that to continue."
Commissioners directed County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder to work with Pasco's constitutional officers to find ways to prevent scenarios such as the one caused by the 818 land trust.
Back in March, the land trust paid nearly $4,000 for tax deeds to three parcels on the county's list of delinquent tax properties. Since then, neighbors to those properties say the trust has tried to intimidate them into buying the parcels for inflated prices. So far, only the residents of Plaza View Drive in Zephyrhills have taken the trust up on the offer.
Tax collector Mike Olson called the trust's actions an "outrageous misuse" of the tax list, saying in a letter to commissioners that it was "imperative" that property owners nearby be protected.
He recommended that the county consider canceling taxes on some delinquent properties and consider notifying adjacent property owners that the pieces of land are up for sale. The list contains nearly 110 parcels, including small strips of land, rights of way and submerged properties, that could be bought.
Commissioners were open to changes.
"I just think we need to address this and to see what, if any, options the County Commission does have," said Commissioner Ann Hildebrand. "I mean, they're out there buying little spits of land and putting the fear of God in some of the residents over rights of way."
The trust is taking on new activities with its Aloha Gardens property, a 20-foot-wide strip that runs behind nine homes in Holiday. Residents there had always assumed that the strip was part of a utility easement.
On Monday night, the trust sent an emissary, William L. Smith III of Tampa, to put a temporary construction-style fence around the part of its property that runs alongside the yard of Sam Dennewitz.
The trust has been pounding Dennewitz over his longtime use of a shed on that property, which he thought was part of his back yard. Dennewitz, describing what he says are harassing phone calls and letters, said he wants the trust to get a court order for him to stop using the shed.
The trust also continues to market the property, posting a recent Craigslist ad that says a home could be built on the land, albeit one that is "a little unusual." The asking price in that ad: $25,000.
But under county regulations, the parcel is not even buildable, officials said Tuesday. Even if it were, the building would be less than 10 feet wide because of setback requirements.
The land trust kept up its habit Tuesday of conducting interviews with the Pasco Times through a relay service, in which the caller communicates by typing to an operator so that his or her voice is never heard. A representative of the trust claimed to be speaking from a boat 10 miles off the coast of Southern California.
Asked why a California resident would care whether his name was made public in Pasco County, the representative would say only that it was a decision made by the board of the land trust.
The representative went on to say that the board was made up of men and women and, unprompted, described the women as "the most breathtakingly beautiful ladies you would ever lay eyes on." (At this point, the monotone operator who was reading the replies tried, unsuccessfully, to stifle a laugh.)
The representative also mentioned a new potential buyer for the Aloha Gardens property: Pasco County taxpayers.
"It seems the county acts like they're looking for an excuse to get our neighboring property owners out of the mess," said the representative. "They (the county) can certainly make us an offer."