St. Petersburg, FL -- For months now, people living along Smacks Bayou in St. Petersburg have been worried that someone was trying to shake them down to use the docks they thought had belonged to them for years.
10 News brought the issue to the city's attention, and now there's been a major development that could have dozens of homeowners breathing a sigh of relief.
According to property records, Travelers Affiliate Land Trust purchased nearly all of the submerged land in St. Pete's Smacks Bayou back in June of 2011 for $1,250. Then a few months ago, an ad on Zillow suggested the group was asking as much as $7,800 for each sliver of land underneath people's docks.
The local HOA president told us 103 homes in the neighborhood association were involved.
The issue pitted the homeowners against Travelers Affiliated in what appeared to be a legal showdown. But the Pinellas County Property Appraiser has decided the city of St. Pete is the rightful owner -- not Travelers -- citing microfilm and paperwork dating back more than 50 years.
"The city actually found documentation of a letter sent to us back in 1961, asking us to remove the property from the tax roll," said Pinellas Property Appraiser Pam Dubov.
Dubov said decades later when technology allowed them to re-map the area, the parcel was erroneously put back on the books and re-assigned to the original owner.
That's who then sold the underwater parcel to Travelers three years ago... or so they thought.
There was no comment Friday at attorney Joseph Perlman's office in Largo. Perlman is the attorney whose name appears on the land trust. His office was closed for the Fourth of July, but county officials say they informed him two weeks ago and that they haven't heard any comment yet, either.
Meanwhile, people living along the water like Mark Samardzich hope this ends the controversy.
"At the end of the day, I'm glad they stepped in. We'll see what happens from here," said Samardzich.
The property appraiser's office fully expects the decision could ignite a new round of legal challenges.
"Because the authority to resolve disputes over who actually owns property is vested in the courts, not in the property appraiser," said Dubov.
The case is being closely watched, because it may also set precedent. About a year ago, the state of Florida announced it would try to re-claim submerged lands that homeowners have long-believed were deeded to them.
The only way to truly know who owns the property under your dock is to look it up on your county's property appraiser's website.
Here are a few of them:
- Pinellas County
- Hillsborough County
- Pasco County
- Polk County
- Hernando County
- Sarasota County
- Manatee County