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State, city clash over Bayshore

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 01:07 PM
TAMPA -

The Jose Gasparilla, flagship for Tampa's annual pirate-themed flotilla, has been a fixture of downtown Tampa since it first docked along Bayshore Boulevard 35 years ago.

The boat's owner, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, signed its first lease with the city in 1976. But state records have raised questions about whether the city had the right to offer that lease, given that it didn't actually own the land.

The state of Florida holds title to the high-profile waterfront strip known as 1 Bayshore Boulevard, and has since the 1920s. City officials dispute that and have spent more than two years trying to establish their claim to land they've maintained for decades — and even built a parking lot on.

The ownership of the Bayshore strip has become an issue as the state Department of Environmental Protection tries to find buyers for about 1,100 pieces of land across the state. The bulk of those have been in state ownership since the Great Depression.

State officials believe the entire list is worth about $56 million.

DEP's list includes 30 tracts in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. Together, they're valued at $4.8 million. The parcels range from scattered fragments of land in northeast Pasco, to 106 acres of agricultural land valued at $3.2 million in Ruskin, to a former probation office in south St. Petersburg.

The DEP list is the first installment of a future database listing all state-owned land. Legislators ordered state officials to create the catalog last year to get a better understanding of what the state owns and to clear the books of unneeded property, said Mike Long, assistant director of DEP's Division of State Lands.

The DEP project includes hundreds of parcels claimed under the Murphy Act, a Depression-era effort by the state to bail out financially strapped property owners. Those who couldn't buy back their properties lost them for good.

Eighty years later, that little-known quirk in state law clouds the titles of publicly and privately owned properties across the state.

In several cases, homeowners have spent years caring for Murphy Act parcels, never suspecting the land isn't theirs. Elsewhere, parcels have been put to public use, even as they now appear headed for sale to the highest bidder.

"It is so murky," said Herb Fecker, the city of Tampa's chief real estate manager.

* * * * *
After years of renting, Charles and Fannie Anderson bought their first home a decade ago in the Inglewood section of Hillsborough County.

Nobody mentioned then that someone else also had a claim on part of the property. Last week, they learned from a Tampa Tribune reporter that the state owns what they consider their side yard and has put it up for sale. Asking price: $100.

Years ago, the Andersons built a chain-link fence across the 10-foot-wide strip running between them and the house next door. Their neighbor warned them about the strip, but they built the fence anyway, Fannie Anderson said.

Charlie Anderson described the strip as a utility easement, dismissing the notion that the state could sell his side yard.

"Who would want to buy a 10-foot-wide piece of land?" he said.

Don Connolly. That's who.

About 10 years ago, Connolly bought up tax-delinquent properties and then demanded money from the owners or neighbors. In one case, the now-deceased Connolly informed a Tampa Heights woman he owned half her house.

Thanks to Connolly, state law now requires landowners next to public land to be notified when that land goes up for sale.

Long, of the Division of State Lands, is hoping the Andersons and people with Murphy Act properties will simply buy them and avoid the possibility of speculators snatching them out from under them.

The state can't just give the Andersons their side yard because state law requires surplus land to first be offered to state agencies and local governments before it's put out for bid. The Andersons can bid on their land, but so can anyone else.

"That does bother me," Fannie Anderson said.

* * * * *
Tampa city officials know how she feels.

Since late 2009, they've been arguing with DEP about who owns 1 Bayshore Boulevard. The land includes the Bayshore jogging path, balustrade, seawall, a city-owned public parking lot and the Jose Gasparilla berth.

The city has maintained the property for decades and, therefore, owns it by default, city real estate manager Fecker said.

"You can't lease something you don't own," he said.

State officials say they've owned the land under the Murphy Act for nearly a century. They've offered to give the land to the city. All Tampa has to do is prove it has a claim to the property. So far, the city hasn't.

DEP told Tampa last summer it would sell the property to the city for market value — estimated at $735,000 — or give the city a free 50-year easement, allowing Tampa to use the property. City officials have refused to accept either offer.

Fecker plans to meet with his staff this week, hoping to settle the issue. "I don't think they can sell it," he said. "I don't think they own it."

As they seek buyers for state-held land, DEP officials are getting a taste of Florida's new real estate reality: It's a buyer's market.

In south St. Petersburg, state officials put a closed probation office on the market two years ago for $490,000 and got no takers.

A second attempt with no minimum bid — the governmental version of "make me an offer" — also met with silence.

Last year, the state offered the property for $168,000 and finally got an offer. Christ Gospel Church of St. Petersburg next door bid $175,000. "Sold," state officials said.

The 5,400-square-foot office will double the church's capacity, housing the church's social programs, which now operate out of the main church building, said the church's pastor, Bishop Preston D.H. Leonard.

The sale will get the building off the state's books, but it won't add to St. Petersburg's tax rolls, because the church is tax-exempt.

The 300-person church is trying to secure a mortgage and close on the building, which Leonard has been eyeing for years. "I've always wanted that building," he said.

kwiatrowski@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7871

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