ST. PETERSBURG — The city of St. Petersburg is staking its claim to a broad swath of submerged land that, according to property records, is owned by a mysterious trust.
The city's declaration comes weeks after waterfront homeowners in Northeast Park and surrounding neighborhoods learned that Traveler's Affiliated Land Trust had bought a large area of Smacks Bayou abutting their properties. The trust has tried to sell at least one dock separately from the adjacent home, asking many times the price it paid for all of the underwater property.
Homeowners, upset that they might not own the docks in their back yards or the land underneath, have banded together in an effort to solve the problem. They pleaded with elected officials for help after several real estate professionals researched the issue and said the trust might not actually own the land.
City officials said this week they plan to send a letter to the trust's representative, Largo lawyer Joseph N. Perlman, concerning the disputed property.
"We're going to put him on notice that the city claims ownership to it," assistant city attorney Rick Badgley said.
The essence of the city's message is that "we own the property and if you have some documentation that shows you own the property, show us what you've got," he said.
Perlman has not responded to calls from the Tampa Bay Times.
According to Badgley, a 1960 deed shows that the city got the land by quit claim deed from companies controlled by Mary and Robert Crisp and that homeowners have a right to build and maintain docks on the submerged property. Additionally, he said, the city's microfilm records show that a letter was sent to Pinellas County asking that it take the land off its property rolls, since it was now owned by St. Petersburg.
"I am very relieved," said John Fullerton, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate on Fourth Street N and a Northeast Park resident.
However, he said waterfront residents in Northeast Park, Snell Isle Estates and Northeast Park Shores are still pooling money to cover costs already incurred in their fight and that "if we have to take it further, it's there."
Nothing has changed at the Pinellas County Property Appraiser's office, where records show that the trust owns the land in question. State Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, who promised residents that he would help, met with Property Appraiser Pam Dubov.
"When you have a disputed situation, she explained to me that it's not the property appraiser's place to settle the dispute. It is the court's job," Dudley said.
Paul Boudreaux, a professor specializing in natural resources law at Stetson University College of Law, said disputes like this can be long and are research-intense.
Property records show that Traveler's Affiliated Land Trust bought the property for $1,300 in 2011 from the Belleair Development Group. Belleair paid $800 to buy it from the Crisp Co.
Carlos Yepes, Belleair's chief executive officer, now says he wants to undo the transaction.
"I told Crisp I would help him in any way we can to unwind it . . . because what the trust is doing is not right," he said.