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St. Petersburg's Coffee Pot Bayou lawsuit will pit city vs. state

7:09 PM, Oct 25, 2013   |    comments
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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.
 PDF Document: Coffee Pot Bayou Motion  PDF Document: Richard Ware Amended Answer

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida - A battle between David and Goliath is about to become Goliath vs. Goliath, as the City of St. Petersburg filed paperwork to intervene in a lawsuit against the state.

The case, Board of Trustees of the...State of Florida v. Richard & Kelly Ware, was filed this summer over ownership of submerged land in Coffee Pot Bayou. In 2008, Richard and Kelly Ware bought a dock - and have paid taxes on it since - which has a clear chain of title dating back to 1883.

The trustees - Governor Rick Scott and his Cabinet - are seeking to re-claim properties privately-deeded and publicly-taxed for 130 years. If the state is able to take back the Ware's property, they could re-claim other properties across the state and cloud the titles of 83 dock-owners on Coffee Pot Bayou. The city also owns a handful of properties that could be re-claimed.

"We're not going to jeopardize our chain of title anymore than we're going to allow the state to do what I think is an improper taking," said Mayor Bill Foster.

Friday, the city filed paperwork to intervene in the lawsuit on behalf of the Wares. A judge needs to approve the intervention, but the city maintains a right because "anyone claiming an interest in pending litigation may at any time be permitted to assert a right by intervention."

St. Petersburg and Pinellas County also stand to lose millions off their tax rolls if the 83 docks are returned to the state.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who has been following the dispute for months, said he may file legislation to clear any potential clouds on the titles. However, he may need to win a veto-proof majority from his fellow lawmakers since Gov. Scott has made it clear he supports letting a judge decide the fate of the waterfront properties.

Meanwhile, the Wares' attorney, David Levin, filed paperwork this week to countersue the state for breaching its warranty with property owners in St. Pete. In his legal brief, Levin contends the disputed land is part of the property the state agreed to sell - and warranty - to Hamilton Disston in 1883. He is seeking damages in excess of $200,000 on behalf of his client. 

Once again, a spokesman for Attorney General Pam Bondi declined comment on why the state was suing to re-claim the property.

Previous stories:

8/16/13 - Gov. Scott's answers don't match questions on lawsuit
8/14/13 - Gov. Scott, AG Bondi avoiding controversial questions on suit
8/6/13 - Gov. Scott, Cabinet members answer questions on Coffee Pot Bayou lawsuit
7/31/13 - State Senator tries to get action on Coffee Pot Bayou suit
7/28/13 - St. Petersburg dock owner sued by state for his land

Find 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips to noah@wtsp.com.

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