RUSKIN — It was due to the serenity of the area that Kelly Kowall purchased four acres of waterfront property that she turned into My Warrior’s Place, a retreat for veterans, first responders and Gold Star families.
Now, she says that peace is threatened due to a property dispute with Hillsborough County. As a result, Kowall says she is relocating the retreat from Ruskin to Punta Gorda.
“I didn’t want to move, but I didn’t have a choice,” Kowall said. “My son gave his life for this country. I built something for other families going through what I went through. But the county only wants to take.”
The dispute is over ownership of 22nd Street NW, which is a fifth-of-a-mile road that runs between the retreat and the neighboring property. It then dead ends in My Warrior’s Place.
Kowall says it’s a private road for her nonprofit retreat and needs to remain so. The county says it’s a public road that can be used to access the neighboring lot that will soon be developed.
“Peace and quiet is key to what we offer,” Kowall said. “If we can’t promise that, then it’s time to move.”
Kowall estimates that the retreat hosts at least 5,000 overnight visitors each year and that thousands more come for day trips.
Two land use attorneys not connected to this issue told the Tampa Bay Times that My Warrior’s Place could dispute the county’s claim in court but would have a difficult time winning.
“I’m not going to court,” Kowall said. “We can’t afford that. Besides, if the county doesn’t want us, why stay?”
She expects to close on the new property by the end of March and will put the Hillsborough property on the market in the coming weeks.
“We need to figure out what it will cost to move and build,” Kowall said. “And then we will fundraise.”
Brent Geohagan, attorney for the Auger family that owns the neighboring property, said that My Warrior’s Place had nothing to worry about. The Augers are building two homes for family members on their nearly 7-acre property and do not plan to add more.
“They would always be respectful of the neighbor,” Geohagan said. “My clients very much respect, appreciate and honor the mission of My Warrior’s Place.”
But it’s not only about the soon-to-be neighbors, Kowall said. “That road brings other noise when it is public.”
When she purchased the property in 2012, the sign for 22nd Street NW said it was private. In 2021, the county changed the sign to declare it public.
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“They said it was a mistake that a private road sign was there,” Kowall said. “I don’t believe that. If it was a mistake, why was I still being taxed on it?”
According to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s website, through 2021, My Warrior’s Place was paying property taxes for square footage that included the road. Making it a public road has invited others to use 22nd Street NW as a turnaround, Kowall said. “I have headlights shining into cabins.”
And, while the Augers promise nothing else will be built on their property, Kowall said that she cannot trust the future of her retreat to assurances. The family could change their mind or sell the land to a developer who does not care about her mission.
“I need to protect what we offer,” Kowall said. “I owe that to those who need us.”
Her son, Army Spc. Corey Kowall, died in Afghanistan in 2009. Soon after, Kowall dreamed that her son was urging her to buy a boat.
She did so and used it to provide boating trips to veterans and others who lost family in service to the nation. That led to Kowall purchasing the property alongside the Little Manatee River as a hub for her boat excursions. Soon after, she turned it into a retreat by adding cabins, monuments to fallen soldiers and an events area.
Today, the retreat has 15 cabins, ranging from one to four bedrooms.
Guests from throughout the nation, often dealing with grief or stress, can stay for up to two weeks. Longer visits are allowed if deemed necessary.
The previous property owner, Kowall said, told her that 22nd Street NW was her property. Boundaries on the land’s deeds dating to 1967 reflect that.
“The language in the deed has no effect on the county’s assertion that it is a public roadway,” said Tampa land use attorney Daniel Molloy, who is not involved with either side with this issue.
What matters, he said, is a Florida statue that states that a government owns a road if they pave and then maintain it for four uninterrupted and continuous years.
The county said they paved it in 2001.
“The owner had four years after that to sue the county and keep ownership,” Molloy said. That predates Kowall’s time as owner.
The man who sold her the land has died, she said.
“They could take this to court,” said Tampa land use attorney David Mechanik, who is not involved with either side with this issue. “If the county has very weak evidence that they paved or maintained the road, it’s certainly possible the property owner could win. But when the county is in litigation with a citizen, the judge will tend to believe the county.”
Kowall could apply for a refund on the property taxes assessed to the square footage of the road, he added.
“I don’t know what I will do,” Kowall said. “All I know right now is that I am tired of fighting.”
If you want to give
Those interested in supporting My Warrior’s Place can visit mywarriorsplace.org.