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Clearwater, condominium complex in dispute over abandoned well site

CLEARWATER — A bizarre city turf war could soon land in court as officials grapple with a condominium complex over resurrecting an abandoned well.

City engineers looking to test and run a well in the Mission Hills condominium complex were threatened by the condo's attorneys that their work would be trespassing. The city may strike back, asking a judge whether a 40-year-old easement on the well site still stands. The City Council will vote on the litigation tonight.

Though a city suing its own residents is "unusual," city attorney Pam Akin said, it may be the only way to defend the city's right to use the land.

But Mission Hills leaders say the suit is an act of bullying, forcing drilling against the residents' will. Worse, they believe the wells could lead to sinkholes, with no offers of city help in case the land erodes.

"We've got 477 homeowners, 55 years and older, living on fixed income," said Michael G. Perez, the CEO of Ameri-Tech Community Management, which has managed Mission Hills for five years. "I've got a fiduciary obligation to protect those people. And for the city of Clearwater to come back and say we're going to sue you — well, by golly, file the lawsuit."

When Mission Hills opened in 1971, leaders signed over to the city a thin strip of land for the laying of a water main and a 40-by-40-foot plot for the drilling of a well site.

The well pumped directly into the city's water system for a year, said Clearwater engineering director Mike Quillen, before the federal Clean Water Act set standards for water treatment. The well was closed and left sitting for decades.

In July, when engineers began looking for water sources for a future city water plant, they turned to Mission Hills. They believed the old easement would allow them to run the old well or drill a new one.

But when the city sent Mission Hills an access agreement, expanding the easement to allow for testing, leaders there sounded the alarm. They wanted a promise that the city would pay for any sinkhole damage before they signed.

Quillen said city officials saw the request as too vague and demanding: any sinkhole in the complex at any time could be blamed on the well. They refused, adding that the easement still allowed them to work on the well.

Cianfrone & De Furio, a Dunedin law firm representing condo and homeowners associations, wrote back that the city's well work wouldn't be protected by the easement, and that they should "cease immediately" or face trespass.

Residents wanted "100 percent coverage" if a sinkhole opened in the well's wake, Perez said. The city's insistences that sinkholes there were unlikely were "shenanigans," he said.

"If they weren't concerned about it," he said, "why would they want to limit their liability?"

But Quillen said proving the cause of a sinkhole is not always so easy. Leaving taxpayers to front any potential damages could prove to be a financial disaster.

A state environmental database shows no sinkholes in Mission Hills in recent decades, and nearby neighborhoods show little of the sinkhole damage seen in Dunedin or Tarpon Springs.

But without city assurance, Perez said, residents would be on the hook to pay for a sinkhole's potentially devastating effects.

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

Clearwater, condominium complex in dispute over abandoned well site 10/19/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 19, 2011 7:45pm]
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