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Residents' docks reveal ownership quirk that could require St. Petersburg referendum

Scott Willis, on his dock on Placido Way NE in St. Petersburg, found out about a year and a half ago that his dock sits on city waterfront parkland, which would require him to sign a lease. He said he and his neighbors are being treated unfairly.
Scott Willis, on his dock on Placido Way NE in St. Petersburg, found out about a year and a half ago that his dock sits on city waterfront parkland, which would require him to sign a lease. He said he and his neighbors are being treated unfairly.
Published Aug. 29, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — After discovering that their docks rest on city waterfront parkland, six northeast St. Petersburg homeowners now must contend with rules limiting their use.

One prohibition: "The possession or consumption of alcohol on the premises."

"Look, I'm not a party animal, but this isn't acceptable," said Pat Bluett, 56, a Largo businessman who teamed up with his brother, Mitchell, to buy a waterfront home on Placido Way NE as a weekend boating getaway.

The pair didn't realize their dock sat on city property until they hired a company to make improvements 21/2 years ago. Bluett said he doesn't want a fight, just an amicable solution.

That could be complicated, thanks to the City Charter.

Any solution to the dilemma would require a referendum. That's right: St. Petersburg's 166,000 registered voters would be asked to decide a matter that affects only six households.

All of this for waterfront properties Bluett and his neighbors own across a body of water from the city's Crisp Park at 37th Ave. NE. Both the park and yacht basin are considered park property.

"To be able to place improvements on the park property, such as docks, you have to execute a license agreement," said city attorney Jackie Kovilaritch.

In this case, the City Charter allows a maximum three-year agreement and homeowners would have to sign a new one every three years.

"It's ultimately this quirk with the charter," said council member Darden Rice, who represents the area. "I am completely empathetic with the situation. One of the things we are looking at as far as a long-term solution is putting this on the ballot so we could have them sign a 50-year lease."

It's a solution Bluett could accept. He said 50 years is long enough to give homeowners a greater sense of security that they won't lose control of the docks or see their property values drop.

A decision to put the issue on the ballot would be up to the City Council. A special election could cost thousands if it's the only item on the ballot. That's not likely, however. If it appears on a ballot, it would be during a citywide election with other issues, making it cheaper. But the deadline to put a question on November's ballot has past. The next opportunity appears to be the November 2016 presidential election.

Scott Willis, 67, who retired as a marine biologist from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, bought his Placido Way NE property 21 years ago. He and his wife, Joanne, were approaching retirement and thought it would be a good investment. It came with a dock, which they renovated about 10 years ago with city and county approval, Willis said.

About a year and a half ago came the unsettling news.

"I received a message from the city that your property was within park limits and you're going to have to sign a lease," he said.

Neither the previous owner nor the title company had indicated that the dock was on city property, he said.

"People are often confused in that ownership of waterfront property does not automatically entitle the owner to build or use a dock," said Paul Boudreaux, a professor specializing in natural resources law at Stetson University College of Law.

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Willis said he and his five neighbors are being unfairly treated and believes the predicament they face in a city of waterfront parks is probably more widespread than officials admit.

But Bruce Grimes, the city's director of real estate and property management, said he is unaware of any other area where homeowners have docks on city property.

"I don't think that we have the capability of going out and investigating every bit of submerged land we own and seeing whether someone has something out there," he said.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes on Twitter.