ST. PETERSBURG — More than a decade ago, Scott Willis got permits to extend and repair his dock and add a boat lift at his property.
But several years ago, he and his neighbors were stunned to learn that their docks actually sit on city-owned waterfront parkland. That's because the docks — across a body of water from Crisp Park — were built on submerged land that, like the park, belongs to St. Petersburg.
In a city with miles of waterways and more than 250,000 residents, the handful who own property along Placido Bayou now find themselves in this situation: The city wants them to sign a lease to use, maintain and improve their docks.
They've also been asked to pay a fee of $150 for each three-year lease term, and the "possession or consumption" of alcohol is forbidden — right in their own back yards.
That doesn't sit well with Willis. He and the other homeowners just want to use their docks "like other people in St. Petersburg."
City Council member Darden Rice said it's a thorny dilemma.
"The rub is that Crisp Park is protected in the charter under the waterfront parks system and the charter is a restrictive document," she said. "It's meant to be, by design.
"We did offer to work with the residents on a lease agreement and for numerous reasons, that wasn't satisfactory as a solution. . . . I completely understand where my constituents are coming from, because it can impact the value and usage of their docks, and that's a big deal."
Pat Bluett and his brother, Mitchell, bought their property almost five years ago as a weekend boating getaway. Bluett, a Largo businessman, said they didn't find out that the city owned the submerged land under their dock until they tried to do some repairs about 3½ years ago.
"We had contracted with a dock company and they submitted a permit (application)," Bluett said. What they got back from the city was paper work for a lease.
The brothers have decided to try again and have submitted a new application for work that will include addressing safety concerns.
"The water is very shallow in there," he said. "We can barely get our boat off the lift. We want to move our lift and put a new cap on our dock. There's a 5-foot area between our dock and our seawall."
Willis and his wife, Joanne, bought their Placido Way NE home in 1995.
"We were never told any of this when we signed contracts to buy our house," he said of the city's ownership of the submerged land adjacent to their spacious back yard.
Last August, he met with city officials to try to resolve the matter. Willis said they told him: "There is nothing we can do about this. This is city park submerged land."
The best deal they offered, he said, was that the city would give him a waiver to be able to drink alcohol on his dock.
Alex and Lena Rogachevsky, who live across the water from Willis, share his predicament. Lena Rogachevsky said she and her husband did not discover that their dock was on St. Petersburg property until the city sent them a lease in the mail.
"Had we been Florida-savvy, we might have noticed that our dock was not on the plat of the land (they bought six years ago)," she said. "Anyone that buys waterfront property needs to check that."
Paul Boudreaux, a professor specializing in natural resources law at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, concurred. He said people who purchase waterfront property should realize that special rules apply.
"Anyone who buys waterfront property should check the ownership and contact the Department of Environmental Protection to clarify their rights," he said. "That's the agency that is going to have the best information about ownership and leasing rights for those issues."
Jim Estes and his wife, Angela, live next door to the Rogachevskys, but he is "not really troubled" by the submerged land issue.
"It is not uncommon for docks to be the property, technically, of who owns the water rights (such as the Army Corps of Engineers)," he said in an email.
Additionally, he said, the city has been "very accommodating" with permits.
"They have told me directly they have no intention of making any substantive changes to how we use and enjoy our docks on a daily basis," Estes said.
What happens if the homeowners refuse to sign the lease? How would it affect their right to use and repair their docks?
It's "a multifaceted and complicated issue" that's not yet been addressed, said Ben Kirby, spokesman for Mayor Rick Kriseman. "It is the desire of the city to enter into a mutually agreeable agreement . . . to allow for the continued existence of the docks."
Rice wants to come to an agreement that works for Willis and his neighbors.
"I don't think that there is anywhere else in the city where we have this idiosyncratic problem," she said. "It's a terrible problem for them."
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.