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Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary warehouse to be auctioned to pay debt

The 2.23-acre Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary warehouse property has been used in part to house birds.

ANNE LINDBERG | Times

The 2.23-acre Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary warehouse property has been used in part to house birds.

INDIAN SHORES — A warehouse owned by the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary is headed for the auction block, the latest casualty of the money woes that have long plagued the organization and its founder, Ralph Heath.

The property, at 12388 Starkey Road in the unincorporated Largo area, will be sold Monday to satisfy a $773,398 judgment owed to Ronald J. Cooper. Cooper filed for foreclosure this year when Heath and the sanctuary failed to make payments on a mortgage held by Cooper.

"It's a real thing. The sale is going to take place," said David Platte, the St. Petersburg attorney for Heath.

Despite that, Platte said his client is "hopeful that he can still salvage this thing."

Rules covering foreclosures give debtors one last chance after the auction to come up with the money before the sale becomes final. In this case, Cooper has agreed to give Heath four months after the sale to repay the debt.

"We have some additional time," Platte said. Heath and others are "working feverishly," he said, to come up with the money to save the property.

If the sale becomes final, the result could be a loss of more than real estate, Platte said. Heath has been using the warehouse property to, among other things, house birds. Platte said he was unsure how many but thought it could be as high as 800 birds. If the land is lost, those birds will have to find new homes or be euthanized, Platte said.

"To my knowledge, the vast majority are seabirds," the lawyer said.

Heath could not be reached for comment. Neither Heath nor Platte responded to a request to tour the property.

Heath, 68, a zoologist, founded the sanctuary at 18328 Gulf Blvd. in Indian Shores in 1971. Heath boasted that it became the largest nonprofit wild bird sanctuary in the United States and one of the top avian rehabilitation centers in the world with emergency facilities, a surgical center, and indoor and outdoor rehabilitation areas. Up to 10,000 injured birds were admitted to the hospital each year for care, according to sanctuary literature.

But there was a darker side to the story.

Heath was accused in 1996 of overstating the effect of a cold winter on wild seabirds in a fundraising letter. Heath said the birds faced the "possibility of a famine," but wildlife experts disagreed, saying the seabird population was stable.

In 1997, questions arose over sanctuary expenditures for a gulf-front home and a yacht. Heath said the house, which cost $300,000, was an investment. The yacht, Whisker, was bought in 1988 for $355,000. It was one of at least 14 vessels owned by the sanctuary. One was used to rescue birds; others had been donated and were for sale.

Whisker was supposed to bring in money from charter fees, but Heath also used the yacht to host parties for supporters and potential donors. He took the yacht to the Bahamas for up to a month at a time. Heath said the trips were to research the effects of plastic pollution on the ocean floor.

In 2007, the sanctuary was forced to close for two days after it failed to pay workers compensation insurance. Three years later, the sanctuary hit rough financial times caused in part by the recession and escalating costs. There was talk of drastically cutting back services.

In 2011, Heath sold the sanctuary property on Gulf Boulevard to Seaside Land Investments LLC, owned by two of his sons. That apparently left the Starkey Road warehouse as the only Pinellas real estate still owned by the sanctuary.

The next year, the IRS filed three liens totaling about $187,726 against the sanctuary for unpaid employment taxes. This year, the IRS filed another lien for about $2,034. The Florida Department of Revenue filed a lien of about $7,684 for unpaid re-employment taxes.

And Cooper foreclosed on the Starkey Road warehouse property. The sanctuary bought the 2.23 acres for $550,000 in 1997, according to records from the Pinellas County property appraiser. The land has an assessed value of about $941,013. Records from the Pinellas County tax collector show total property taxes due of about $5,249 for the 2012 and 2013 tax years. Information on the foreclosure sale, which will be done online, can be found at pinellas.realforeclose.com.

Heath's recent woes are not all monetary. He was arrested last month and charged with workers' compensation fraud. Heath is accused of operating the sanctuary for seven months without workers' compensation insurance as required by state law. Part of that time, Heath was also allegedly operating in defiance of a stop-work order issued because of the lack of insurance coverage, according to a sworn affidavit filed by an investigator with the state Division of Insurance Fraud.

Heath has denied all charges.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary warehouse to be auctioned to pay debt 12/13/13 [Last modified: Friday, December 13, 2013 3:53pm]

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