Home owners worried they're caught up in a land scheme

St. Petersburg, FL -- Pinellas County has seen its share of bizarre property scams over the years, which is why a recent property listing on the real estate website Zillow has several homeowners concerned.

"He could charge whatever he wants. He owns the property," says Scott Willis, President of the Northeast Park Neighborhood Association.

Willis and his neighbors are concerned by the listing which is asking $7,800 for the submerged property behind a waterfront home along Smacks Bayou.

"It affects 103 homes in my neighborhood association," says Willis.

Willis says neighbors who have recently listed their waterfront homes were contacted by the legal owner of the submerged land, Traveler's Affiliated Land Trust. According to county property records, the trust purchased the entire underwater parcel for $1,250 in June of 2011.

Now, says Willis, it's creating confusion about who has rights to the docks and waterfront access behind those pricey properties.

The legal question, they're worried, may affect sales.

"If I was a person looking to buy a house, I would think twice about buying a house that's got some sort of problem associated with it," said Willis.

Some say it sounds a lot like the infamous "pink fences" case.

In 2002, land speculator Don Connolly erected a pink fence separating people from their pristine views. Connolly bought up small parcels at tax sales, then told neighbors he'd take down the fences... but for a hefty price. The case was later settled, and Connolly has since passed away.

Legislators have since passed new rules that require the owners of adjacent properties be given fair notice when such tax sales take place.

It was a similar sight in 2003 when Anthony Tocco boldly spray painted his phone number on a sliver of land he had purchased for a pittance, right behind a condo building. He even had a friend land a helicopter on the strip of property, urging people to buy it for considerably more than he had paid for it.

We tried repeatedly to contact Largo attorney Joseph Perlman, whose name appears on the Traveler's Affiliated Land Trust purchase, and ask him if that's what's going on in this case.

He declined to speak us.

But in this case, records show the property was purchased from the previous owner, and not as part of a tax sale. It may also just be a coincidence, but last summer, the state of Florida took the legal position it controls all such submerged land statewide.

That might give the current owners of submerged lands incentive to get whatever they can for those properties - now.

"The politicians need to be aware that it's wrong and do something to solve the issue," urged Willis.

We took the issue to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who called it a "shame," and urged the homeowners to contact his office.

"Anytime anyone tries to game the system, it's obviously problematic," said Kriseman. "You hate seeing people do that."

So how would you know if the property your dock is sitting on really belongs to you? The advice, say officials, is to contact your local tax collector or property appraiser's office.


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