ST. PETERSBURG — A simple permit request to repair a dock on Little Bayou has morphed into a two-year dispute that includes lawsuits and a countersuit by the city that have rankled residents along a tranquil neighborhood near Coquina Key.
It began in 2004, when the city denied Terry Clarke a permit to repair his dock on Little Bayou.
The marine engineer went home, fuming after being told he didn't have a legal right to the boat slip. Clarke, 55, knew that most of his neighbors in Bayou Bonita had had docks in front of their houses for as far back as anyone could remember. The wood-frame home his family owned and paid taxes on since 1964 always had a dock, too.
Two of Clarke's neighbors on Sunrise Drive, Ira "Dusty" Rhodes, 62, and Bart Barbalich, 85, shared his outrage. Their frustration led them on a historical odyssey that stretched back to a time when nearby Coquina Key was all mangroves.
During research they pulled historical photographs that show docks on Sunrise Drive. They contacted an heir to the original Bayou Bonita developer who held the deed to the land.
In 2007, a judge said that person could convey ownership to the homeowners. Sam H. Mann Jr. did just that.
On Friday, the Bayou Bonita Land Trust faces off against the city in court again.
In response to the trust's 2-year-old lawsuit, the city is suing the trust and 37 other homeowners on Sunrise Drive listed as its beneficiaries.
It is a dispute that everyone agrees should be easier to solve but has grown so contentious that words are not spoken outside court.
"It's just silliness," said Clarke. "There are nights when I just lie in bed, saying, 'I don't believe this.' "
The trust wants what are known as riparian rights, which give property owners permission to maintain structures on adjoining waterfront.
The problem is that Sunrise Drive, a paved city street, separates tranquil Little Bayou from the homes. Between the street and the water is a strip of grass from 39th Avenue S to 46th Avenue, measuring 3.77 acres.
In 2004, the city deemed the grassy strip a park, though it was never named. The homeowners insist in court papers that they don't want to take over public land. They just want to keep their docks, which add value to their homes.
The trust had to sue the city in order to gain recognition of ownership, as the judge's decision did not give them that, said Laura Bamond, a former city and state attorney representing the trust.
Assistant City Attorney Jeanne E. Hoffman said she could not comment on a case in litigation. But in court papers, Hoffman argues that the Bayou Bonita Connecting Co. owned and built homes on the land in 1917.
The land was annexed into city tax rolls in 1925. The company dissolved during the Great Depression. And for at least 20 years the city has maintained the waterfront and street.
The city became involved in 2007 after Mann conveyed ownership to the trust. The city objected, but its motion was denied. The trust then filed its suit seeking ownership rights.
In December the city gave notice that it would be filing its own suit against all of the homeowners, seeking dismissal of the suit and compensation for services provided over the years — a sum yet to be determined.
City Council member James Bennett, who is familiar with the case, said he sympathizes with the homeowners and will fight for their docks.
But he emphasized that they have gone about things the wrong way. The city cannot allow private residents to take over a street, he said.
"No one wants a fight on this," said Bennett. "From everybody I have talked to in the city, we want to work with them on this, but we can't work with them until the lawsuit goes away."
Bennett added: "They're going after us as if we are the bad guys on this, and I don't think we are."
The trust fears that if Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge J. Thomas McGrady decides the city can sue them individually, the case will be bogged down by years of litigation that would be beside the point.
They only wish this fight could be simpler.
"I don't want to be the owner of that damn land," said Barbalich, a retired electrical engineer. "I just want my dock."
Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or email@example.com.