A mysterious land trust, taking extraordinary measures to hide its identity, purchased a trio of oddly shaped parcels in Pasco to extort exorbitant payouts from unsuspecting neighbors who believed the land to be in the public domain.
The intimidation tactics from the (818) 239-2215 Land Trust include threatening to block residents from using a road, telling contractors to tear down a metal shed, and browbeating neighbors with promises to turn narrow tracts of land into a drag strip, dog run or inventory for a sod company.
The bullying is for financial gain despite the implausible explanation from a trust representative — who declined to identify himself or herself and who spoke only through an operator as an intermediary — that three trust members just happened to drop by the courthouse to investigate how tax deed sales worked while they were on a pleasure trip to Pasco.
Some pleasure trip. As detailed by Times staff writer Jodie Tillman, the trust paid less than $4,000 for three strips of land and recouped its investment by agreeing to sell one parcel along Plaza View Drive in Zephyrhills for $4,000, five weeks after obtaining the land for less than $1,400 and slapping an asking price of $15,000 on it. Neighbors said they had little choice but to pony up because a court fight could be more costly and the land in question was a 600-foot private road that they had paid to pave and which provided the only access to nearly 15 homeowners.
The other parcels are in Colonial Hills and Aloha Gardens in Holiday. All three became tax delinquent in 2001 before a state law went into effect requiring notification of neighbors when common property goes up for a tax deed sale. As of May 2, nearly 16,000 parcels in Pasco were delinquent on tax payments, and 745 parcels became eligible for tax deed sale because the owners had been in arrears for more than two consecutive years as of April 1.
The property appraiser, tax collector, clerk of courts and county commissioners should work together to protect unsuspecting homeowners from similarly devious actions like those employed by the (818) 239-2215 Land Trust. Tax Collector Mike Olson said he will ask the county to have its real estate department review the tax delinquencies for parcels similar to Plaza View Drive that contain a road. The County Commission would have to decide as a matter of policy if it wanted to cancel the tax obligations or obtain the land.
Just as appropriately, the county or one of the constitutional officers should send notices to neighbors in such instances that predate the 2004 state legislation to curb the potential for menacing by others.
That state law came as a result of Don Connolly, a Valrico real estate speculator who became known as "the fence guy" in 2002. Connolly, who died in 2005, erected a fence across back yards in Tarpon Woods to block waterfront views after obtaining slivers of land at the water's edge. He also told waterfront homeowners on Boca Ciega Bay that he owned the submerged land beneath their docks.
Olson recalled one instance at least a dozen years ago when officials notified lakefront property owners in Odessa that the parcel earmarked for the public boat ramp was up for tax deed sale. For the most part, however, safeguards for tax delinquencies pre-dating 2004 are intended to protect the property owners from losing their land unknowingly. For instance, on all three parcels obtained by the trust, deputies posted delinquency notices on the properties when the owners could not be located.
The land grab in Pasco also caught the attention of Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who contacted the Attorney General's Office on Monday morning to investigate a potential legislative remedy to unmask similarly obscure land trusts.
"It's about accountability,'' Fasano said. "The people left in these desperate situations should at least know who they're dealing with.''
His idea is to have tax deed purchasers provide a full name, address, tax identification number and telephone number to the local tax collector and Department of Revenue before the transaction could be completed. Trusts would be required to identify all participants.
The close of the legislative session, however, means at least another year before anything could be done in Tallahassee. Pasco County officials shouldn't wait that long. They should act before additional homeowners face threats to their peace of mind and property values.