The State of Florida has filed suit against a local property owner, claiming his land, a 1,000-square-foot dock on the edge of Coffee Pot Bayou -- bought and sold in accordance with local laws since 1883 -- has actually belonged to the state since 1845.
ST. PETERSBURG, Florida -- The State of Florida has filed suit against a local property owner, claiming his land -- bought and sold in accordance with local laws since 1883 -- has actually belonged to the state since 1845. The case could set monumental precedent that wouldn't just affect residents of the city, but property owners statewide.
Rick Ware doesn't live on St. Petersburg's Snell Island, but he owns property there: a 1,000-square-foot dock on the edge of Coffee Pot Bayou.
Ware, who paid $142,500 for the waterfront property in 2008, is one of 83 owners who have bought the docks as individual parcels. Some of the lots have been owned by families since 1883.
But Attorney General Pam Bondi, retained as counsel for the DEP, filed this complaint alleging Ware's dock was built on navigable waterways, making it sovereign land and state property. The state seeks to invalidate Ware's deed.
While Ware said he has been the target of DEP questions for years on the issue, he was surprised to get the lawsuit earlier this month and expects his case to set precedent for all other dock owners in St. Pete.
"Every dock you see here is in the same situation, originating from the same deed in 1883," Ware said.
But attorneys tell 10 News the case doesn't just jeopardize dock owners in St. Pete, it also jeopardizes the city, county, and other municipalities.
The 83 docks represent millions of dollars of real estate that would be taken off the tax rolls. But St. Pete also owns 12 of the docks, purchased at auction years ago.
Furthermore, a court ruling that the state owns the submerged lands alongside Coffee Pot Bayou could mean the state can also lay claim to city-owned submerged lands at the St. Pete Pier.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster says a cloud on one property's title would be a cloud on the titles of all waterfront properties in the city. Contacted by 10 News on Friday, he promised swift intervention.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has also been trying to help Ware deal with the DEP, but says the lawsuit is "very concerning."
"This is an incredibly important issue to many of the constituents here in our community," Brandes said. "I am ready to pursue any legislative remedy to protect property rights if necessary."
Tampa land-use attorney Ron Weaver tells 10 News the state has a difficult case to prove, since Florida sold 4 million acres, including the Coffee Pot Bayou land, to Hamilton Disston in 1883 to help payoff defaulted bonds form the Civil War.
Disston, who presumably acquired the property in good faith, assumed control of the submerged lands from the state. But Bondi's argument was that Disston's property lines ended at the seawall, since Coffee Pot Bayou was navigable in the 19th Century. Ware has spent the past three years proving it was not.
"This has been a battle for like 197 years as to who owns Tampa Bay and under Tampa Bay," Weaver said.
Weaver speculates the DEP may be taking on a 130-year-old property issue now because its trying to set precedent that would have far-reaching effects statewide.
"There are millions of Floridians who may have some interest in that part of the water's edge," Weaver said.
Bondi's office referred all questions to the DEP Friday, which declined comment on pending litigation.
Find 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Email tips confidentially to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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