Neighbors align to confront developer
Heritage Isles homeowners meet to talk about the
financial and other problems facing their community.

Published November 9, 2003 

HERITAGE ISLES - Faced with a growing deficit, a costly security system that doesn't work as advertised, and streets in disrepair, homeowners have formed their second group of volunteers that will attempt to wrangle some settlement from the community's developer - Lennar Corp.

Homeowner Rachel Ciliberti introduced the group Thursday night to more than 70 residents at the Heritage Isles Clubhouse. She and three other homeowners, Sam Harris, Buddy Brannen and Bruce McNally, discussed how to resolve growing discontent in what is now a community of 624 homes, but will grow to 1,025 when Lennar is done.

Heritage Isles is losing about $1.5-million every year, which Lennar officials say is because too few golfers are paying greens fees and eating in the clubhouse dining room. Revenue from the golf course and restaurant were supposed to finance the bonds that helped build the community - a risky business model that didn't work in Heritage Harbor, another local Lennar development.

Lennar resolved the Heritage Harbor crisis by spending $8-million, in exchange for a $600-a-year increase in homeowner recreational fees, a solution that Ciliberti said Heritage Isles should consider.

Heritage Isles also spends about $125,000 every year on guards and gates. But the roads are public, and therefore, the gates and guards can't prevent motorists from entering, a blow to the esteem of homeowners who bought their houses thinking they were in a restricted-access community.

And homeowners are complaining about the condition of the roads. But it's not clear who should fix them: Lennar or the city of Tampa.

"Lennar approached us, saying we need to sit down and discuss these issues," Ciliberti told the crowd Thursday.

So every Monday, at 6:30 p.m., a group of volunteers will meet at the clubhouse to hash out ideas and research the extent of the financial problems facing the community. A second group of volunteers will hand out fliers to upcoming meetings. Everyone is invited to attend a monthly meeting on the first Thursday of every month, Ciliberti said.

Ciliberti said she expected the group to spend six months to a year researching the problems. After that, she said, they will have a final meeting with homeowners to discuss what options to consider and how to negotiate with Lennar.

But another group, formed by homeowner Jim Dowswell and others, spent much of the summer researching the same issues.

When Dowswell called a meeting in late August to discuss options, it ended without a clear consensus. Afterward, some homeowners grumbled they were more confused than ever.

Thursday night was a little better, but still some homeowners were wondering if Lennar was willing to sit and negotiate in good faith.

"Lennar's pulling your leg," one skeptical resident told Ciliberti during the meeting. "They won't do anything unless you sue them."

"Well, let's give it a try," Ciliberti said. "We want to give them a chance, but only for so long. Let's wait to see what they put on the table."

Some homeowners said they weren't sure if the community could forge a united front and take on a $7.3-billion company.

"Too many chiefs, too few Indians," Marcia Bonner said.