ST. PETERSBURG — Rick Ware is not simply fighting City Hall, he is contending with a bigger Goliath: the state of Florida. And he may have the city as his ally.
The state Department of Environmental Protection sued Ware last summer because of the dock at his home on Coffee Pot Bayou, a mangrove-lined waterway that lines the lush, affluent neighborhoods in Old Northeast and Snell Isle.
At issue is who owns the underwater land beneath Ware’s dock. The state contends it owns all the submerged lands in navigable waterways, including Coffee Pot Bayou; Ware contends the land beneath his dock is his private property.
Now, the city of St. Petersburg – which owns 12 docks along the bayou and collects tens of thousands in property taxes from dozens of other dock owners there – wants to join Ware in defending against the state. On Tuesday, a hearing will determine whether they can officially do so.
Former Mayor Bill Foster vowed to fight the state when the city learned of the lawsuit, and his successor, Rick Kriseman, has agreed to keep up the battle.
For a city to join a resident as a defendant in a lawsuit is not typical, but neither are the circumstances of this case.
“I think from the outset it needs to understood that this is a highly unusual case,” said David Levin, Ware’s attorney. “It’s not common for lands under water to be privately owned. Typically the lands below navigable waters belong to the state.”
Except Coffee Pot Bayou, he said.
The bayou opens up into Tampa Bay. While Ware and other dock owners they can safely maneuver watercraft throughout its waters, Levin doesn’t think it fits the state’s criteria for navigable waterways.
The standard for whether a waterway is “navigable” is whether boats could pass through it in 1845, when Florida became a state.
Many of the docks that line bodies of water like the Intracoastal Waterway were constructed over known public land. Not a problem, unless you want to build a dock that exceeds 500 square feet.
The lands under Ware’s dock and those around it have been bought and sold numerous times since real estate tycoon Hamilton Disston acquired the area from the state as part of a 4-million-acre purchase that cost him $1 million. He later divided it up and sold it off.
Ware assumed he was on private land and it would be fine to double the size of his dock, putting in place a covered boat lift.
“I was under assumption, because I have a deed and bought it, and it’s titled and taxed and everything else, that I have private property, that I own the dirt under the dock, which allows me to build a 1,000-square-foot dock, which is what I did,” he said.
The state noticed, and eventually brought the lawsuit, claiming that it owns the land under the dock, and that it wants it back.
It’s unclear how long it will take to be resolved.