COURTESY of The St. Petersburg Times
BRANDON - It started with arguments in community clubhouse meetings.
Then came the state ethics complaint and the office break-in.
Now rumors and accusations are running rampant in the sprawling Rivercrest subdivision. Among them: nepotism, mismanagement, perjury and intimidation.
Late last month, two board members vowed to resign from the Rivercrest Community Development District board. Both of them changed their minds, attended a board meeting Thursday and afterward, decided again to resign.
"I never expected this. It's been pretty crazy," said Lisa Fernandez, who joined the board in May. "A lot of suspicions and rumors were flying. It's a small community."
And there are many others like it.
In 1980, the Florida Legislature created community development districts. They operate like governments and can borrow millions tax-free to pay for roads, utilities and amenities. Homeowners in the development pay annual fees.
Now the districts are the most popular method for financing new subdivisions in Florida. There are more than 530, nearly double the number in 2004. Hillsborough County leads the state with 60.
"This is a financing tool that brings sorely needed revenue to support the development of the state," said Timothy Chapin, an associate professor of urban and regional planning at Florida State University.
But there is a downside, he said. "There's big money involved, but the state's provided absolutely no oversight of them."
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Residents disagree about the root of the tension in Rivercrest, a 5-year-old subdivision with about 1,500 homes, a $1.1-million community development district budget and annual district fees ranging from $500 to $1,900.
Some blame the builders. Some point to the people who control the district's purse strings: a combination of elected and appointed board members. And some say a few disgruntled residents are ruining the community.
Robert and Kathy Madill saw paradise in pink stucco when they moved to Rivercrest two years ago. But now their disputes with the district have consumed them.
"We wanted to live in peace in this neighborhood," Kathy Madill said. "They're just sucking the life out of it. It's getting crazy. It's a powder keg."
Longtime critics of the board, the couple filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics in July, claiming board member Robert Castellini violated state nepotism laws by voting on issues that involve his wife, the district's activities director.
In July he voted on the district's budget, which included an $800 raise for his wife, who makes $32,000 a year.
"That's gain. He should have abstained," Robert Madill said.
The Ethics Commission is investigating, but hasn't said whether the allegations are valid.
"It's all a personal vendetta," Castellini said Tuesday. "I've done nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing that's unethical."
At an August meeting, Castellini said the Madills' claims were false and asked the board's lawyer to investigate them for perjury. The board voted 3-2 in favor of his motion.
Fernandez and board member Daniel Leventry dissented.
"You have to be willing to catch spears in your chest. ...I understand how you feel personally," Leventry said, "but you have to get some thicker skin."
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A few days later, someone slipped into the district's office in the Rivercrest clubhouse and stole a computer, checks and money orders.
Hillsborough sheriff's detectives have not identified any suspects, spokeswoman Debbie Carter said.
But some residents have their own suspicions.
Robert Madill said the burglary is connected to his ethics complaint.
"I think it was an inside job," Fernandez said.
Castellini also suspects something fishy: "It's awfully peculiar that somebody knew exactly when to break in."
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As community development districts mushroom across the state, Chapin of FSU said such neighborhood disputes will likely increase.
"All too often you can see a bunch of people are making decisions, who really don't understand the power that they've got, and the procedures that need to be followed," he said.
The Madills said Rivercrest's problems run far deeper than their ethics complaint.
Robert Madill claims several board members have violated the Sunshine Law, and has filed a complaint with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
But the finger-pointing goes both ways.
A Rivercrest pool monitor said Thursday that Robert Madill intimidated her when he came into the clubhouse office.
And the board members whom he has accused deny the allegations and say they're fed up with his criticism.
Board member Manuel Carro Jr. submitted a resignation letter last month.
"I do not feel that $200 a meeting is worth all the insults and innuendos that are affecting me personally," he wrote. "This has become a witch hunt, and people and neighbors are turning on each other."
Earlier this week, he said he had changed his mind. "I'm not going to be forced out," he said. But on Saturday, he said he was resigning from the board for family and health reasons.
Castellini also submitted a resignation letter last month, then changed his mind and attended Thursday night's meeting. On Thursday night, he submitted another resignation letter that cited personal obligations.
"I've heard that the Rivercrest CDD is the laughingstock of this whole area because of what's allowed to happen, because there's a small handful of about five residents who continually harass and manipulate everyone," Castellini said earlier this week. "The first chance I can, I'm selling my house and moving to a different community."
Carro and Castellini said Friday that they had resolved their differences with the Madills.
Castellini blamed builders and the district's management company for most of Rivercrest's problems. Unless the community shapes up, Castellini said, he's still planning to move.
The Madills have a "For Sale" sign outside their house, too.