Easement on Coffee Pot Bayou pits neighbors against Masonic Home of Florida

ST. PETERSBURG — Paul Gerle uses an adage about a doomed frog to describe how he feels about his Masonic neighbors' latest quest to shut off access to a sliver of public property along the northeast St. Petersburg waterfront.

"Little by little, they have grown their property to a value of $25 million and now they want to take away a little bit more from the neighborhood,'' he said.

"It's like the analogy of the frog in the water. If a frog is placed in hot water, he jumps out immediately, but if he is placed in cool water and it is heated up gradually, he doesn't notice the small, incremental changes.''

But those connected to the Masonic Home of Florida, on 18 acres of manicured grounds off Coffee Pot Bayou, have a different opinion. Their complaints include outsiders wandering beyond the unmarked public easement that borders the nursing home, pets being let out of cars to scamper and poop on their grounds and vagrants astray from a nearby park.

The Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Florida has decided to act — again. The group is asking the city to vacate the 10-foot-wide easement that runs along the south and southeastern edge of its property at 3201 First St. NE. The request will go before the Development Review Commission for a second time on July 7. Commissioners deferred the issue at their May meeting.

Meanwhile, neighbors of the Masonic Home are organizing to protect the public easement they use for biking, walking, pushing baby strollers and as a safe, scenic shortcut through northeast St. Petersburg neighborhoods.

People who misuse the property are in the minority, said Gerle, and are no excuse for grabbing public land.

"It belongs to the people,'' he said.

The Planning and Economic Development Department will recommend that the Masons' request be approved. In a May report, the department said the Masonic Home's goal "is to eliminate what is currently an undefined, non-lighted public easement'' in favor of a new easement along First Street NE that will be used for a bike and pedestrian route and connect to the Pinellas Trail.

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The new easement is "anticipated to provide a greater public benefit'' than the one the Masons are asking the city to vacate, the report said. But the perceived swap infuriates neighbors, who view it as a quid pro quo arrangement between the city and Masonic Home.

"The outrage is coming from (the Masons') presumption that they can take public land at will through back door deals,'' said Anne Lynch, who lives a few houses from the facility.

"It definitely felt like a wink-wink deal,'' said Carol Sjollema, who spoke against the proposal at the May meeting.

Masonic Home lawyer Stephen R. Gladstone and the city say the nursing home's agreement to give up land for the bike and pedestrian trail is unconnected to the nursing home's subsequent request.

"It's not a tit-for-tat thing,'' Gladstone said.

The Masonic Home originally dedicated the controversial waterfront easement as a condition of the city vacating the "platted grid system of streets and alleys'' that once ran through its property, the development department said. The 10-foot-wide easement is separated from the shoreline by a preservation easement that is 20 feet wide.

Darren Bishop, president of the Northeast Park Neighborhood Association — which holds its monthly meetings at the Masonic Home — wants to retain public access while addressing the facility's complaints.

"They do have legitimate concerns. I just want to make sure there is a solution that is short of vacating the easement,'' he said.

Part of the problem is that the easement is unmarked. "You know you have access, but you don't quite know where,'' Bishop said. "If the Masonic Home is concerned about people wandering off the easement, we would like to work with them to communicate where the easement is and to work with the city to demarcate the easement so as to eliminate any confusion. Maybe we could work with the city and the Masonic Home to perhaps construct a small fence.''

It was a fence that triggered an earlier argument and sent neighbors appealing to then-City Council member Virginia Littrell for help. The fence erected by the Masonic Home blocked outsiders from the public easement.

"It took us a long time, but we got it arranged that the neighbors would have access,'' Littrell said.

Under the agreement, the gate was to remain unlocked during day and evening hours. Littrell said the Masonic Home had expressed concern about security and underage drinking in its gazebo.

"I could understand their point of view. We suggested to them that the city could put in a walkway on the city part and they would put up a fence along that path and they were not willing to do that,'' she said.

Littrell added that she had researched the issue thoroughly and discovered that the gazebo encroached on the easement and had been constructed without a permit.

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The Masons' history with the property dates to 1918, when the group bought a former hotel and converted it into a home for children. It eventually became a home for elderly Masons, their wives and their widows. In 2000, neighbors became alarmed when the facility considered building condominiums. That has yet to happen, but the Masonic Home's attempt to block access to the waterfront has raised speculation that the project is being revived. Gladstone said there is no current plan for condos, but did not rule out future construction.

Meanwhile, neighbors are fighting to keep the public easement.

"If we start or continue to fool around with those easements and make exceptions, then where do you stop?'' said Rob Traviesa, who has been in the neighborhood for almost 21 years.

The Masons say the community has turned their grounds into a public park. "The property is for the use of the residents. It's not an exercise trail,'' Gladstone said. "We have 100 elderly people in that facility. Just imagine, God forbid, a dog running up to an elderly person with paper-thin skin.''

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Easement on Coffee Pot Bayou pits neighbors against Masonic Home of Florida 06/29/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 29, 2010 5:58pm]

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