ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County Property Appraiser Pam Dubov says her office will correct its records to show that the city, not a mysterious land trust, owns a large swath of Smacks Bayou.
Dubov announced her intention in a letter to Traveler's Affiliated Land Trust, which acquired the submerged land by quit-claim deed three years ago, and the city, which said it has owned the property since the 1960s.
The discrepancy came to light early this year when owners of waterfront homes in the Northeast Park neighborhood learned that Traveler's was claiming the land under their docks and trying to sell at least one dock separately from the adjacent residence.
Residents, some of whom angrily erected "no trespassing" signs on their docks, called the property appraiser's office and pleaded with city and state officials for help. Dubov initially said there was nothing she could do.
"My dilemma was we had a group of third parties, the owners of docks, who were doing their best to convince me that the city was the owner. When we called the city, what we were told was, 'We own something, but we are not sure what it is,' " Dubov said.
Asserting its claim a few weeks ago, the city's legal department told the Times that St. Petersburg had acquired the land by quit-claim deed from companies controlled by Mary and Robert Crisp. The department said microfilm records showed that a letter had been sent to Pinellas County asking that the land be taken off property rolls, as it was now city-owned.
"The role I have found myself in is trying to re-create a history that took place 50 years ago," Dubov said this week. "When the initial deed was transferred, I am pretty sure I was in kindergarten at the time."
In her June 23 letter, Dubov said her office had "reviewed public records to confirm the ownership and boundaries" of the area in question.
"Extensive analysis of recorded deeds and plats from 1932 forward suggests that the parcel boundaries as reflected on the tax roll map have been incorrect, and the area must be split into two parcels," she said.
The property appraiser's website will now show that a majority of the contested property belongs to the city, with only a small corner owned by Traveler's. That will be in keeping with initial research done by St. Petersburg real estate lawyer Chris Sanders, who told homeowners in April that the developers of Northeast Park and Snell Isle Estates had transferred the bulk of the submerged lands to the city by quit-claim deed in 1960.
Just one piece, an area south of Eden Isle, was excluded. Sanders said the waterfront property owners had been given exclusive rights to build and maintain private docks. Those rights, he said, extended to property fronting the small parcel owned by Traveler's.
State Rep. Dwight Dudley, who took homeowners' appeals to Dubov, is pleased: "She is by-the-book, very cautious and appropriate in moving forward with this. In order for her to move to do what she is doing is an excellent indication that this is the right thing to do."
St. Petersburg's chief assistant attorney, Mark Winn, said Dubov's decision is good on two fronts. "Now we know what we own out there," and records will reflect the proper ownership, he said.
Largo lawyer Joseph N. Perlman, who represents Traveler's, has not returned repeated calls from the Times.
According to property records, Traveler's bought the submerged land for $1,250 in 2011 from the Belleair Development Group. The trust then tried to sell one dock for $7,800.
John Fullerton, a Northeast Park resident and Realtor with Coldwell Banker, thinks questions about Traveler's ownership are now settled.
"I would have no problem listing a house and selling it now, because they're not refuting what we're saying," said Fullerton, who had organized his neighbors to fight the trust.
Dubov is cautious. "I need for people to understand this doesn't end the discussion, because I don't get to decide a title dispute," she said, adding that if the city and Traveler's disagree, the matter will have to be settled in court.
"And the courts might come back to me," she said. "I will follow through with the direction of the court, because I am not the decider."
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.