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Pinellas settles lawsuit with flooded Hillsborough residents

ODESSA — Karen Murphy and her sister, Dianne Campbell, will no longer have to wade through floodwaters to their front porch, pushing groceries in the recycling cart. They'll be able to take showers and do laundry the same day. And when they turn on the dishwasher, chances are the water won't back up.

That's because they no longer will be living on soggy land adjacent to a flooding lake in northwest Hillsborough County. The Pinellas County government, owner of the lake, agreed to buy Murphy's property and that of two of her neighbors on Tyler Run Avenue in a series of court settlements that the Pinellas County Commission approved over the past few months.

Under the settlement, the county agreed to pay $525,000 to Murphy; $650,000 to her neighbor Donna Baldwin; and $600,000 to neighbors Ron and Sharon Jacobs.

"I'm very happy,'' Murphy said. "They did the right thing.''

She and Campbell soon plan to move to a condominium in Tarpon Springs. They looked for a place that isn't in a flood zone.

"That, and toilets that flush,'' Murphy said.

The land in question has been a boondoggle for Pinellas County for more than 30 years. The county in 1982 sued the original owners of the property — Charles, Billy and James Martin — and charged that the fill dirt borrow pit and dump they operated had contaminated a nearby well field that was a source of Pinellas' drinking water.

Scientists never found any widespread pollution, however, and after the case had dragged on for 16 years, Pinellas settled with the Martins, paying them $1.5 million for 80 acres. By that time, Pinellas taxpayers had spent about $9 million on the suit.

Under an agreement with Hillsborough County and environmental protection authorities, Pinellas turned the property into a lake with graded slopes for possible sale to a developer. Pinellas worked out a deal with the Tyler Run residents to use 75 feet of their property to grade the lake's slope. In exchange, the county would return their property when the work was done and grant them ownership of land underwater, so they could build docks.

Resident Ron Jacobs said a lawyer they consulted at the time told them they would be foolish to let a deal like that go by.

The lake was supposed to remain at a level of 22 feet, but the residents' lawyer, John M. LeRoux, said he doubted it had been that level since 2010. It measured 24.75 feet in 2012, he said, and 25-plus feet in 2013. He said he didn't know why the lake was flooding.

Jacobs said he lost the use of pasture land on which his cows grazed. Baldwin said she lost the use of a barn and a stable, which she could have rented to horse owners for a potential $1,800 per month. She routinely drove an all-terrain vehicle through knee-deep water to get to her front door.

LeRoux said his clients mainly feel relief.

"They feel good that the county sat down and negotiated in good faith and were able to reach an agreement, allowing each of these folks to move on with their lives.''

With the settlement, Pinellas County hopes to emerge from its own flood of misery that began with the suit against the Martin brothers.

"It puts an end to the borrow pit issues and we can move forward now on what else needs to be done out there," Pinellas County Attorney James Bennett said.

It's unclear what the county will do with the property.

Contact Philip Morgan at pmorgan@tampabay.com.

Pinellas settles lawsuit with flooded Hillsborough residents 07/17/14 [Last modified: Thursday, July 17, 2014 10:28am]
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