Pinellas commissioners say no to vacation request

Encroachments from landscaping have left only a small opening for access to the Pinellas Trail, which must now be fixed as part of a decision made by county commissioners who voted to deny a request to vacate the right-of-way.

LARGO — Pinellas County commissioners voted no to a request to vacate a right-of-way in Palm Harbor due to a number of issues including encroachment by the petitioners onto public property.

The initial request for vacation of the right-of-way and alley resulted in approval on only the 20-foot alley during a July 21 Pinellas County Commission meeting.

The second request from Christopher D. Muller, Laura T. Muller, Raymond B. Bennett and Debra Schaefer to vacate an 80-foot right-of-way, known as Illinois Avenue in Palm Harbor, was deferred to give the parties’ time to continue to work with staff to resolve several issues.

Staff recommended denial of the 80-foot right-of-way (Illinois Avenue) in July and again when the item came back before the commission on Jan. 26 for a variety of reasons including the need for a utility and drainage easement over the entire area.

The applicants wanted the vacation to increase their property size and to be able to retain un-permitted improvements made on the county right-of-way.

However, staff pointed out that the Schaefer property was currently non-conforming due to lot width and the vacation would not resolve the situation. A bigger problem seemed to be what staff described as “extensive encroachments” onto Illinois Avenue and Ninth Street by the Mullers.

County staff has been working with the Mullers for 12 years to get them to remove landscape improvements beyond their property that also impede access to the Pinellas Trail. Since the first request to remove the private property, staff says additional landscaping has been done.

The Mullers are constructing a home and staff made removal of the encroachments a condition to grant a certificate of occupancy for the residence that will be completed sometime after the first of the year.

After a lengthy discussion on July 21, including past history and a review of reasons the county could have use of the 80-foot right-of-way in the future, as well as the need to access existing utilities and objections from neighbors, the commission agreed that it was best to withhold the certificate of occupancy for the Mullers’ new home until the problem was resolved, including making sure access to the Pinellas Trail was restored.

Staff agreed to keep working with the Mullers to try to find a solution, including alternates for drainage.

Commissioner Pat Gerard, who was chair at the time, asked staff to make sure the county wouldn’t have to bear the cost of removing all the landscaping if there was a need to access utilities.

“I have a problem with rewarding bad behavior,” she said.

Fast forward to Jan. 26 and not much had changed. The applicants and county staff still disagreed on the county’s need for the property for a future drainage project, safety concerns remained where improvements had encroached on Ninth Street and opinions had not changed about the way the Mullers had treated county property as if it were their own.

They denied the vacation and required that encroachments on Ninth Street be removed. They also directed staff to set a bond amount to cover the cost of removing the encroachments on Illinois Avenue if the Mullers failed to do so when the county was ready to do the utility project.

Staff estimated that the drainage project on Illinois Avenue might make it into a six-year plan in the near future. At which time the Mullers would be notified of the date they would need to remove the landscaping. If they don’t remove it, the county would use the bond to pay to remove it.

Meanwhile, the Mullers would be allowed to continue to enjoy the improvements until the property was needed. They would be able to get the certification of occupancy for their new home as soon as the bond was set and the vegetation removed on Ninth Street. The commission also asked that the landscaping that was impeding access to the Pinellas Trail be removed.

County Attorney Jewel White pointed out that by using the bond, if the property was sold, the bond would still ensure the any work the county had to do was paid for. The consensus was to set an amount that considered the growth of the vegetation over several years.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.