|DeLand retiree keeps watch over homeowner associations|
Article Courtesy of The News Journal
Published May 7, 2007
DELAND -- It all started over a playground.
When the developer of his St. Augustine community built a children's recreation field in a retention area instead of where it was promised, Jan Bergemann led his homeowners' association into court against the developer.
"It took four years because nobody wanted to prosecute, and it never went to trial," Bergemann, 62 and now a DeLand resident, said in a recent interview. "So we just gave up."
During the protracted legal battle, a state legislator told Bergemann that state laws didn't favor homeowners. Instead of spending money to pursue a single developer, the lawmaker said Bergemann ought to go to Tallahassee and change the laws protecting all developers.
So Bergemann formed a group that later became Cyber Citizens for Justice, and off to the state capital it went.
"The developer was using association money to defend himself against us," Bergemann said. "We got the law changed so developers have to use their own money."
A native of Hamburg, Germany, Bergemann came to the United States from Great Britain in 1980 when he became the executive chef for a restaurant in Sacramento, Calif.
He later bought his own restaurant, but sold it in 1994 when his first wife died. Bergemann remarried and moved to St. Augustine in 1995, where he and his new wife moved into the community with the misplaced playground.
Despite limited success against that developer, Bergemann soured on association living.
He learned that residents governed by homeowner associations have very few resources if they have a dispute with the organization or the developer, who typically remains in control for several years after a community is built.
"We have (state) laws, but no way to enforce them," he said. "Developers can violate homeowner association laws, but nothing happens."
According to Bergemann, the only recourse is to take a developer to court. But as his experience showed him, legal action often is fruitless. And if the dispute is with the association itself, the situation is not much better, he said.
"The association says if you don't like it, you can always move out," he said. "That's a bunch of bull. Most new homes are governed by homeowner associations."
Condominium owners have it a little better, but not by much. The state Department of Business and Professional Regulation is tasked with ensuring compliance with Florida statutes regulating condominium ownership and sales, but Bergemann claims it issues warning letters and nothing more.
The mission of Cyber Citizens for Justice is to be an online resource for residents governed by homeowner and condo associations. The vice president is from Jacksonville, the treasurer from Fort Lauderdale and the secretary from Boynton Beach, with other board members from Miami, Dunnellon and Tamarac.
Bergemann is president of the group, which claims about 300 paying members statewide, and more than 5,000 names on an e-mail alert list.
Cyber Citizens also monitors Tallahassee for legislation or other information that might be helpful to members and news recipients.
Communicating mostly via e-mail and telephone calls, Bergemann says he's helped many people, including several in Volusia and Flagler counties, get information that helped them in disputes.
Merle Kappelmann of Daytona Beach Shores said she came across the Web site when she had a dispute with her townhome association.
"It's an unbelievably informative Web site, full of lots of information," Kappelmann said. "(Bergemann) keeps us updated on a daily basis on what's going on in the legislature, and gives us good insight into the minds of politicians."
Kappelmann, who has never met Bergemann in person, said he's good about answering any question she has about her dispute.
"If you don't know things, it can scare you and intimidate you," she said. "But he can allay fears. His Web site . . . allows you to know what's happening to you also has happened to many others."
Ormond Beach condo dweller Bill Bramer also is a fan, although he and his wife found the Web site a week or so before an arbitration hearing over replacing leaky windows in the couple's unit.
Bergemann "would have jumped in with both feet if we had asked, but it was kind of late in the game," Bramer said. "I kind of wished we had come across him sooner."
Bramer said Florida is a buyer-beware state, and that's what Bergemann is trying to educate the public about.
After his experience in St. Augustine, Bergemann and his wife, Karin, moved to DeLand. But not into an association-controlled neighborhood. And he continues his fight against mandatory governance by homeowner associations.
"Homeowner associations are people with a lot of power, but not the necessary training to do it professionally," he said. "Nothing against homemakers, but raising kids doesn't give them the necessary training to control a $1.5 million budget or review complicated building contracts."