SUN CITY CENTER – A private road that’s been the bane of Sun City Center Plaza tenants for years is about to become a bigger headache.
Commonly referred to as Sun City Center Plaza, the road is scheduled to be sold at public auction Oct. 3 at 10 a.m. to anyone willing to pay the delinquent taxes on the property. The $15,393.29 tax bill is for back taxes on the property from 2009 to 2012, said Dana Dove, a general manager for processing in the Hillsborough County Clerk of Circuit Court’s office.
Notice of the upcoming auction sent a flurry of fear through Sun City Center Plaza tenants. The road connects the plaza to State Road 674 and is the main entry and exit road for the plaza, which is home to the Sun City Center Post Office, the Sun City Center Chamber of Commerce and 30 other businesses.
“The chamber has absolutely no other access,” said chamber director Dana Dittmar. “That road is the only way out of our parking lot. It’s also the main road used by residents visiting the post office.”
While there are two other access points into the center, Sun City Center Plaza road is, by far, the most convenient and the most heavily used, said Dittmar.
Plaza tenants are afraid someone will purchase the road at auction and then cut off access to the plaza.
“That’s my big concern – that someone will buy it and make a power play. That would hurt these tenants tremendously,” said Dittmar.
That scenario isn’t unprecedented, said Dove. In 2002, Valrico resident Don Connolly purchased the right of way around a 4-acre lake in Tarpon Woods subdivision in East Lake at a delinquent tax sale for $1,000. He then erected a fence between the lake and the $300,000 homes surrounding it. And while representatives of the county hope no one does anything similar, they’ll have no control over it once the road is purchased.
“I would hate to think someone would be so ruthless as to do that in this case,” said Dove. “But it is private so the owner has a right to do whatever he wants.”
She suggested it might be beneficial for the plaza tenants to pay the delinquent taxes and retain control of the road.
Paying the back taxes isn’t the problem, said Dittmar. The quandary is funding the $50,000 to $100,000 in improvements the road needs, she said.
Built 50 years ago when the Del Webb Corp. began developing Sun City Center, the road has since fallen into disrepair. Sunmark Communities took over from Del Webb in the 1970s but eventually sold a portion of its holdings in Sun City Center to WCI Communities. WCI, in turn, filed for bankruptcy and sold a portion of its holdings to Minto Communities. Although it paid county taxes on the plaza road in 2008, WCI Communities ceased paying taxes after 2008, according to the clerk of circuit court’s office.
When Minto Communities entered Sun City Center in 2010, it hired an engineer to assess the cost of fixing the road, although it is not part of Minto’s legal holdings in the community. The engineer determined that the 50-year-old pipes beneath the road, intended to divert runoff to a nearby retention pond, had disintegrated, causing large potholes to form. To resolve the problem, the road would need to be dug up, the pipes replaced, and then the road would require repaving at a cost of $50,000 to $100,000.
Following a plea from the chamber, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan enlisted the services of the Bradenton-based pothole specialist, B Pothole Free, two years ago to fill the potholes. But the fix didn’t last long, said Dittmar.
“In its current state, the road’s a community health hazard,” said Dittmar. “This is a golf cart community. If someone hits a pothole the wrong way, they could be tossed out of the golf cart and sustain serious injuries.”
She said the plaza tenants might be able to come up with the money to pay the back taxes, but the group of mostly small businesses certainly could not afford the cost of repairing the road.
“These businesses are just too small to absorb that kind of cost,” she said. “Then we’d have the additional expense of maintaining the road.”
The plaza tenants, therefore, want the county to declare it a public road and fund the improvements.
“The county is being very remiss in not stepping up to the plate,” said Dittmar.
The county, however, disagrees.
“This issue took us by surprise. It’s not something that’s on anyone’s radar up here,” said Ellie Rodriguez, aide to County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who represents Sun City Center. She added it simply would be too expensive for the county to take on all of the hundreds of private roads in need of repairs.
“This is considered a driveway into a commercial center,” added county spokesman Steve Valdez. “It’s not in the county’s purview at all. It’s a private property issue. Taking it over is not something the county would consider.”
But Dittmar said the road is hardly a “driveway.”
“I refuse to call it a driveway,” she said. “Driveways don’t have stoplights at the intersection of a state road. This is a road that is integral to the community’s transportation network.”
Dittmar had hoped the back taxes would go unpaid at the Oct. 3 auction, and the road would revert to county ownership, but Valdez said that’s not the case. If the property doesn’t sell at public auction, it will continue in its current state of ownership limbo, he said.
Under new state statues, anyone purchasing property for delinquent taxes is not permitted to block access if the property in question is the only access, said Valdez. But because the shopping center has two other viable access points, including Pebble Beach Boulevard, the new owner conceivably could restrict access to the road.
“I don’t know why anyone would do that,” said Valdez. “In fact, I don’t know why anyone would purchase a road with a history of pothole issues. I understand their (the tenants’) concerns but, if there are other ways to access the shopping center, there’s not much we can do.”
D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance writer who can be reached at [email protected]il.com.