ST. PETERSBURG — After two years of courtroom drama over dock ownership, residents of Bayou Bonita and the city have begun settlement talks.
The goal, according to both sides, is to reach a legal agreement that would allow the homeowners to retain rights to their land and docks while allowing the city to keep its easements for utilities and oversight of publicly used land.
The turnabout gained traction last week, a day before a judge was to decide if the city could move forward with its lawsuit involving nearly 40 residents on Sunrise Drive, according to City Council member Karl Nurse.
"Tangibly, I don't understand how it sort of got here, but it did get here, and I think we can step back and fix this," said Nurse, who represents the neighborhood and learned about the case after being contacted by the Times.
"We've been asking for this to happen for two years," said Ira "Dusty" Rhodes, who formed a trust with neighbors Terry Clarke and Bart Barbalich to fight for their docks.
At the root of the dispute is a strip of grass from 39th Avenue S to 46th Avenue that separates Little Bayou from Sunrise Drive. Beneath the grass are city easements for utilities.
The dispute began when Clarke applied for a city permit to repair his dock. The city said no. But historical records indicate that the land up to the seawall, including the dirt beneath the city street, was part of the homes.
The neighbors contacted an heir to the company that developed the land in 1917. A judge allowed Sam H. Mann Jr. to sign the deed of the "upland" parcel, which he did in favor of the homeowners.
But to determine ownership, the trust had to sue the city. The homeowners say their intention was never to take over land that is widely used as a public park, but only to maintain rights to the docks.
The plot thickened when the city filed a countersuit against the trust and three dozen other homeowners, seeking to dismiss the original suit and get compensation for years of maintenance. In court papers, city lawyers argued the property belongs to the city because it has maintained the property for more than 20 years.
Previously, the city refused to talk to the homeowners because it was being sued. Now, both sides say an out-of-court legal settlement may achieve what both parties want.
Assistant City Attorney Jeanne Hoffmann and attorney Laura Bamond, who represents the trust, both declined to comment until a settlement is reached.
When the parties go back to court is unclear. A hearing before Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge J. Thomas McGrady has been indefinitely postponed.
Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or Lperez@sptimes.com.