Published January 10, 2004
BY MICHAEL REED
A man from Amelia Island is part of a statewide debate over homeowner rights that aired Friday in St. Johns County.
Stephen Cromley, who also lives in Maine part of the year, said he wants to protect the established rights of homeowners. Cromley used to rent his condo, but four years after moving in, his condominium association prohibited the practice.
"You change the rules in the middle of the game here," Cromley said. "You pull the rug out from me and other people across the state."
A governor's task force created to improve relationships between homeowners and homeowners associations met Friday in the St. Johns County Auditorium. The task force, which will make recommendations to the Florida Legislature, meets in various locations across the state.
Cromley's story has been covered by the Boston Globe and St. Petersburg Times, as well as other Florida papers. He said the coverage has helped give the issue statewide and national importance.
Cromley and his wife bought a condominium in 1996 in the Piper Dunes North neighborhood of Amelia Island Plantation. They rented it out in the summer when they lived in Maine for $7,200 a month, he said.
It was all legal.
But in 2000, his condominium association of 28 owners voted to prohibit short-term rentals, which could force Cromley to move.
"My wife loves it there," Cromley said. "We worked 40 years, just like a lot of people in Florida, with the anticipation of coming here full time."
Cromley has brought his case to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation and he's talked to lawmakers. He has yet to win back the right to rent his condo.
He's fought his association for three years, and he said he's seen corruption, incompetence and illegal destruction of documents. Now he hopes the Florida Legislature will pass a law allowing him to be grandfathered-in and able to continue renting.
Task Force Member Jan Bergemann of St. Augustine is also fighting for homeowners association reform.
"Most of us bought a home and not a share in homeowners association politics," Bergemann said. "We want to live in peace and not bother with this other stuff."
He called for the creation of a state agency with the power to enforce policy to protect homeowners. The members of homeowners associations could pay $4, and that would generate enough money to fund the new agency, he said.
"This is actually the only way that we can really find a solution to all the problems," Bergemann said.
He made a motion to include the new agency in the task force's recommendation, but it failed in a 10-3 vote. Other members opposed bigger government, which they said could increase taxes.
The Department of Business and Professional Regulation regulates the associations now. Cromley said the organization doesn't have enough staff, money or teeth to solve his problem.
During Cromley's battles with his association, a similar case from Clearwater was working its way through Florida's courts. The lower courts found in favor of homeowners because their association changed its rules after they bought their homes, but the state Supreme Court overturned the decision. The court said the Legislature should be responsible for providing an escape clause for owners.
Cromley got Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, and state Rep. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, to write letters asking other legislators to undertake a study on the rights of homeowners and how they are affected by changing rules of homeowners associations. King sent his letter to Sen. Alex Villalobos, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Bean sent his letter to House Speaker Johnnie Byrd. They were mailed around June 1 last year.
"I am also concerned over the potential impact that changes to existing rental policies have on both the property rights and the property values of Florida condominium unit owners," King said in the letter.
Later, Gov. Jeb Bush ordered the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to create the Homeowners Association Task Force to gather input and make recommendations to the Legislature. The final meeting is Jan. 28 in Tallahassee, and the task force could issue recommendations to the lawmakers before the legislative session begins in March.