No neighborly talks over this fence

Published Oct. 21, 2002|Updated Sept. 4, 2005

It's hard to believe such a rural, off-the-beaten-track neighborhood exists in the most densely populated county in Florida.

Private dirt roads meander through woody terrain to large, pricey homes settled on properties of several acres.

In this mostly unspoiled area hard against the Pasco County border, property lines are defined by tasteful wooden fences.

At least many locals thought they were.

Recently, a surveyor discovered that Richard Samuelsen's fence stops 34 feet short of his southern boundary. South of his property line is an undeveloped preserve owned by the county. On the northern boundary of his property, the fence extends 34 feet too far, encroaching into a grassy meadow where William Donati's miniature horses graze.

But there are more consequences to the discovery than Samuelsen having to move his fences.

A dirt path along the eastern edge of Samuelson's property had been used for years by neighbors to head north onto Ridge Top Drive and over to East Lake Road, where most do their grocery shopping.

Donati, it turned out, owned the northernmost 34 feet of the dirt path and didn't want his neighbors passing through. So he put up signs alerting neighbors that he planned to close it off. Then, last month, he did.

His decision has sparked an ugly neighborhood feud that might end up in the courts. At the least, it threatens the relative peace and quiet enjoyed in the neighborhood for decades.

Twice in the past month, sheriff's deputies have been called to the neighborhood.

The first call came Sept. 10 when Donati put up the fence. The deputy contacted county officials, who later confirmed that Donati owns the 34 feet.

The second call came two weeks ago when Catherine Brauner, 48, defiantly drove around Donati's fence. Donati called the sheriff's office, which sent a deputy to Brauner's house at 9:50 p.m.

Brauner is convinced that she should be allowed to use the trail, but she has agreed not to.

"I don't want to go to jail over an easement," she said.

All of the neighbors south of Donati have another way out. They have easements that allow them to go south to East Lake Drive, which leads to Keystone Road.

But Keystone Road often is congested, and it can be treacherous to turn left onto Keystone from East Lake Drive, Brauner said. Besides, she said, her grocery store is to the north. So is her bank.

"You can understand my frustration," she said.

Brauner and some neighbors have been talking to lawyer Larry Crow, who also is a state representative, about filing a lawsuit in hopes of reopening the trail. Crow argues that the residents might have something called prescriptive easement rights. Essentially, he said, it means that because people have been using the access for more than 30 years, they can continue to use it.

Donati, who also has been talking to a lawyer, said the prescriptive easement arguement is ridiculous. If someone enters Countryside Mall from a particular spot for 30 years, he asks, does that mean the mall will never have the right to close that entrance?

Donati said he has good reason to want to close the road.

People speed down the road, he said. Teenagers throw beer bottles out their windows onto the roadside, where he has to pick them up. And one resident struck one of his dogs with their car and never even stopped to apologize or acknowledge it. The crash crippled the dog, he said. And residents of the Riviera development to the north have begun using the trail as a cut-through, he said, even though he has asked residents to keep a gate across the trail closed to nonresidents.

"It's a general nuisance," Donati said.

And the bottom line, he said, is that he owns 34 feet of land between the trail and Ridge Top Road so he can close it off if he wants to.

"I've owned that since 1989, unbeknownst to me," Donati said.

His neighbors need to respect that, he said.

"They will not listen to me," he said. "I'm not going to come out the bad guy in this thing. I have done everything by the book."

Jill Noblit MacGregor, one of the southern neighbors, said before the 34-foot issue, everyone seemed to get along.

"That changed everything very quickly," she said.

MacGregor _ 43, the great-granddaughter of Granville Noblit, one of the original settlers of Tarpon Springs _ said her descendants amassed most of the property in that neighborhood, then sold it off in pieces.

MacGregor remembers using the trail in question back when she was a child. It passed through orange groves back then, she said.

She moved back to the neighborhood with her husband in 1991 and had been using the trail for northern access for more than a decade.

"It's been back there for generations," she said. "We've been here forever. That's why it's so hard to believe this is happening. It's a different day in age. People deal with people differently.

"That he (Donati) owns it, no one is disputing. But how can he cut people off after 100 years of using it? That's the issue."

MacGregor said she and her neighbors had hoped to work out the issue peaceably, but "he's forcing us to take it to court."

When weighing the southern neighbors' argument, Donati said, consider this: Neighbors to the south do not let the three homeowners to the north of Ridge Top Road but south of the county line use their paths to get to East Lake Drive.

That's particularly taxing because those residents can't get mail delivered to their homes. The only way there is through Pasco County, and the U.S. Postal Service won't do it.

So every day, Diane and Richard Molony have to drive 8 miles to get to their mailbox on East Lake Drive. It's the same thing to drop off their daughter at her bus stop: 8 miles.

The man in the middle of the controversy, Samuelsen, isn't taking sides. His is the property that was discovered to be 34 feet south of where everyone thought it was.

"I'm trying not to get in the middle of it," Samuelsen said. "I'm trying to be neighborly to people on both sides."

He's not thrilled with having to move his fences, but the property line issue needed to be resolved someday, he said.

He does not blame Donati, he said.

"He's a great neighbor," Samuelsen said of Donati. "It's his property. . . . It's only right. If it's his, it's his."

All seem to agree that the issue seems destined for the courts.

MacGregor said the whole issue has soured neighborhood relations for the foreseeable future.

"It's a Florida haven that has kind of been kept a secret," MacGregor said. "Now it's not.

"How it's all going to end up, I don't know."