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‘Orphaned’ road may have unenthusiastic ‘relatives’

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image Hillsborough County attorneys have endeavored to trace ownership of the roadway through various legal documents executed over some 40 years. Melody Jameson Photo

As it turns out, an “orphaned” road here may have “relatives” after all.

By MELODY JAMESON

SUN CITY CENTER – As it turns out, an “orphaned” road here may have “relatives” after all. But the “family” remains reluctant to claim it.

Leaning on extensive title searches, a Hillsborough County attorney has concluded that maintenance responsibility for the deteriorating roadway dubbed “Sun City Center Plaza” can, in fact, be identified.
Those entities, however, are not rushing to take on the obligation, currently estimated to require an initial ante of about $40,000.

The aging pavement, of perhaps a long city block, is the western most entrance to the community’s oldest commercial district, on a north-south alignment between S.R. 674 and the plaza parking area.

Immediately adjacent to it – and accessible from it – are, among others, the Sun City Center Chamber of Commerce offices, leasing occupants, including a bank, of a two-story complex owned by local developer Stan Whitcomb, the regional U.S. Postal Service processing hub for surrounding communities as well as the retail post office for the retirement community, the Payant Financial Center, also housing a bank, and a one-story structure where the local offices of Dr. Peter Jacobson are located. These sites all are on the west side of the road.

It is the owners of these abutting parcels of land that have legal responsibility for maintenance of the roadway, according to Susan Fernandez, an assistant county attorney who examined the issue at the behest of county commissioners following formal inquiry from SCC’s Community Association. Fernandez issued a six-page memo last week detailing her assessment of the situation and outlining various approaches to an ultimate resolution.

That resolution involves repair and ongoing maintenance of the roadway now pock marked with potholes that challenge the suspension systems, wheels and undercarriages of vehicles trying to negotiate the road, including 18-wheel trucks transporting freight for the post office as well as plaza retail outlets.

Focused concern about the decaying roadway surfaced months ago, prompted by driver complaints leading even to a protest demonstration. Provable ownership of or responsibility for the roadway, generally assumed to have become the abandoned property of previous community developers, was not known at the time.

In an attempt to encourage creation of a repair procedure, Minto Communities, the Canada-based builder now completing housing construction in SCC, assigned engineers to assess the road condition and produce, at no charge, an initial estimate of repair costs involved. That engineers’ estimate was $40,000, assuming no extensive underground work would be required to recover the road with a reliable driving surface.

Tracking ownership of the roadway and adjacent properties over the years through various legal documents, Fernandez pinpointed easements granted by early developers as they sold parcels, concluding that “These supplemental easements encumber the subject road…” She added that “…there is common intention expressed throughout these instruments that responsibility for road maintenance rests with the lot owners…”

Fernandez goes on to identify five “lot owners” in consecutive order along the west side of the road: Payant Prestige properties, LLC, the SCC Chamber, the Diane Z. Jacobson Revocable Trust, Center Plaza Bulding, Ltd., and the U.S. Postal Service. In addition, the attorney noted that easements to owners of Lots 2 and 3 – the chamber and the Jacobson properties – specify they “shall repair, replace, maintain, and keep any paving located within the easement in reasonably good condition at the lot owner’s expense.”

The property owners themselves, however, this week began to indicate they are not yet convinced. Dana Dittmar, chamber executive director, told The Observer she has scanned the county attorney’s memo and anticipates the matter will be discussed when the chamber leadership assembles for its annual planning “retreat” on July 15.

Nancy Ross, USPS spokesman in Tampa, acknowledged this week that the existing postal service building and land are owned by the agency, but said the attorney’s memo had not been received, much less reviewed. Given a brief overview of its contents, she suggested the matter may require oversight by the agency’s real estate specialists.

More vocal on the subject, Stan Whitcomb, whose company holds title to the office complex identified as the Center Plaza Building in Fernandez’ memo, said he had not received nor reviewed the attorney’s evaluation when reached by telephone in North Carolina. But, based on a very cursory consideration of the memo’s jist, Whitcomb questioned use of the easements as an ultimate determining document. He said he would pull his own archived property files in early July in order to compare the components of his legal ownership and responsibility.

No representatives of the other two property owners - Payant and Jacobson - could be reached by the Observer.

Fernandez’ detailed memo also contains her recommendations. She suggested commissioners inform the property owners of the legally supported obligations, encouraging them to work together cooperatively for resolution and “jointly share in the costs of the repairs.”

Barring the community approach to the road repair remedy, the attorney also listed other options. One of them might be voluntary donation of the roadway by the property owners to the county, meaning nearly $7,000 in county tax dollars would be required to pay off existing tax sales certificate holders and the adjacent owners would have to relinquish any rights under the easements. Another option could be use of the more expensive and lengthy eminent domain procedure whereby the county takes possession through court action.

A third might be creation of a dependent taxing district – generally a two-year process - under which members of the district are taxed to support the district’s objectives. Yet another option, Fernandez outlined, is resumption of the code enforcement procedure and potential designation of the private road as a nuisance. However, the attorney warned, the downside in this instance could be opening the door to a flood of disputes over private driveways, for example.
Additionally, if certain circumstances were found to exist, the county also could assume the repair costs without taking ownership of the “orphaned” roadway providing, Fernandez concluded, a true public purpose was served.

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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