Thursday, January 4, 2024

Homeowner Learns 50-Foot Easement Cuts Through His House and Yard 14 Years After Buying Property

 Adam Walser ABC Action News

ODESSA, Fla. — An Odessa man is suing the City of St. Petersburg, alleging the city didn’t correctly record a 50-foot easement through his property. The city blames his title company and said the easement contains pipes supplying water to 360,000 residents. The I-Team has found evidence that the easement may run through other properties in the Odessa area whose owners don’t know about it. “This place was full of life, and it was a great place to raise children,” said Hamid Salahutdin, looking at his home on Racetrack Road. Salahutdin, 74, bought the home with his wife Penelope in 2001. The couple ran a thriving daycare center there. But now the property is a constant reminder of a 90-year-old record-keeping mishap and his title company’s failure to catch it.

“The house and everything… it’s worthless.”

“I found out about the easement in 2015,” Hamid said, referring to a 50-foot-wide easement running through the house and yard. On Zillow, it said the property is worth more than $900,000. But that’s without any

accounting for the easement, according to Salahutdin. “Salvage value. The house and everything…it’s worthless,” he said. Salahutdin said in 2015, city workers came to check a blow-off valve for one of the water lines. It was equipment Salahutdin said he didn’t know was on his property since it was covered in thick brush. The easement was granted in 1930 for a 36-inch water main going from what is now the Cosme Water Treatment plant to the City of St. Petersburg 26 miles away, crossing hundreds of properties. The second 48-inch water main was added in 1962. The pipes provide 28 million gallons of water a day to 360,000 St. Petersburg residents. A surveyor used spray paint, flags, and stakes to show the location of Salahutdin’s easement in 2015. Salahutdin then marked it with roofing shingles. Eight of Salahutdin’s 10 acres are considered swamp land. The house and pipes are in the middle of the usable part. “It goes through the pool, it goes through the hot tub, it goes through the screened-in, it goes through the kitchen, it goes through the bedroom,” Hamid said.

Easement wasn’t recorded for 24 years

The house and pool were built by a former owner in 1982. Hillsborough County building permits show no easement. Records show the 1930 easement wasn’t recorded until 1954. “I contacted the title company for them to fix the problem,” Salahutdin said. Fidelity National Title Insurance Company’s lawyer sued the city in 2016. In 2020, Salahutdin’s wife Penelope was diagnosed with cancer, closed her daycare, and died months later. That same year, the property foreclosed, which put the lawsuit on hold.

Title insurance policy was purchased but hasn’t paid up

We asked attorney Andy Lyons, who’s not associated with the case, to review real estate and court records. Lyons also owns a title company. “That is why he bought a policy of title insurance, to make sure he has an insurance policy in case something like this comes up,” Lyons said. But Lyons said the title company has a defense since the city didn’t correctly record the easement. “What normally happens is the county will put in a utility and record an easement. That easement gets recorded. Every time that property transfers after that, the easement follows the deed,” Lyons said.

26-mile easement through two counties not adequately recorded

During the 24 years before the easement was recorded, properties were divided and sold with no record of the easement. Painted shingles show where easement crosses Hamid's property. “And there’s no way any of the homeowners after that would know just by looking at their deeds,” he said. That original easement was 26 miles long, through both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Salahutdin's property changed hands seven times after the easement was granted, but the easement never showed up in title searches. In response to our records request, the Hillsborough County Appraiser’s Office wrote that it, "could not find that easement on any Hillsborough deed.”

Document shows city has known about potential problem for 58 years

A 1965 memo from a St. Petersburg utility employee indicates Salahutdin’s property wasn’t the only one affected. The memo said, “There are certain areas in Pinellas County through which the 36-inch water transmission line was installed without the benefit of easement rights…it’s possible structures could be erected over the pipeline.” The stamp near the bottom of this county document shows that easement that was granted to extend the water pipes in 1930 was not recorded until 1954. A lawsuit alleges it was not filed properly alongside the deed to Hamid's property. Lyons believes those old pipes could be a ticking time bomb. “That is a full hard flow of water constantly through those pipelines, so if there’s any kind of rupture in a pipe that is now nearly 100 years old, that’s going to have potentially catastrophic effects,” Lyons said. The City of St. Petersburg has declined comment, citing the ongoing lawsuit.  The city’s attorney wrote in court filings, “Even the most basic due diligence would have discovered the recorded easement." The document also said, “This suit… is an effort to stall the foreclosure proceedings.” Salahutdin said the city made a low-ball offer. “In mediation, they offered me $25,000,” Hamid said. This water line is now prominently marked as it crosses Racetrack Road, but Hamid says that wasn't always the case. Salahutdin purchased a $350,000 title insurance policy but said the title insurance company only offered a fraction of that amount to settle. In an email, they declined to comment. Salahutdin and his family were members of an ethnic group called the Tartars. They were captured and imprisoned during the Korean War. “We were held prisoner for three years, seven months, 28 days,” Salahutdin said. He eventually immigrated to the United States, married, had kids, started businesses, and bought what he believed was his dream home. “I am very disillusioned with what the American dream is here,” Salahutdin said.

Reprinted with the permission of Adam Walser and ABC Action News.