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Over protests, city sells lots to Habitat

This week may mark the turning point for what has historically been a tepid relationship between Tarpon Springs and Pinellas Habitat for Humanity.

Over protests of residents and staff, the City Commission decided to sell three city-owned lots to the nonprofit group for $15,000 each Tuesday night.

In accepting the bids from Habitat, the commissioners rejected offers from a private developer for four times as much - and avoided the perception the sale was intended to maximize revenue for the city.

The vote was unanimous on two of the sales and 4 to 1 on the third, with Commissioner Peter Dalacos casting the lone dissent.

Dalacos was not against Habitat's purchase in particular but objected in support of a Tarpon Springs family who said their effort to buy the land was stymied by the inequities in the city's acquisition and open-bid sale process.

"This whole process, from beginning to end, stinks," said Lois A. Mayer, whose house at 606 E Center St. borders one of the lots.

Mayer said that she and her husband told city officials they wanted to buy the vacant property immediately after the city foreclosed on it in 2004, due to liens imposed for outstanding code violations.

Mayer said trash remained throughout the overgrown lot the past 20 months, and the city ignored their repeated inquiries.

When the Mayers finally got the chance to bid last month, they decided to offer $18,975, based on the assessed value of the lot in 2004.

But last year, the commission passed an ordinance making it illegal to sell city-owned properties for less than what an independent appraiser deems they are worth - except to a nonprofit organization.

Appraised values are much higher than assessed values; each of these lots was appraised at $65,000.

Dalacos objected to the practices of foreclosing on a home for code violations and said that by selling the lots for several times what it cost to acquire them, the city was acting like a "profit monger."

The commissioners said they were not advocating overzealous code enforcement, but that did not help decide what bid to accept.

The only candidates that satisfied the legal requirement for the first three lots was Bayou Springs Development and Habitat for Humanity.

The commission voted for Habitat, which has built only nine homes in Tarpon Springs, according to the city's building department permit tracking system.

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