Published February 9, 2004
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Five million Floridians belong to a homeowner's association.
The groups dictate regulations under which neighbors reside, but some residents worry homeowner's associations power has gone too far.
"We have had two close calls in the last year and a half," said resident James Beldon. "We have had two close calls."
Beldon said a gate almost killed him and his wife. They didn't put it up. It was erected by a neighboring homeowner's association that wanted to cut down on traffic so people could ride their horses. But the gate also cut off the shortest route to Beldon's house. Last year, answering Beldon's 911 call, fire rescue workers looked at a map, and picked the quickest way to get to him. What they didn't know was that the quickest way had been cut off.
"There was no way around the barricade, so they had to redirect and go around the north side," Beldon said. "Instead of being about three minutes (to respond), it ended up being 35 or 40 minutes."
Instead of taking down the gate, the association gave firefighters a key.
"The sign says it is for police and fire department use only, but on at least one occasion, the fire department pulled up to this gate and couldn't get to an emergency because they didn't have the right key to the padlock," Beldon said.
Beldon said the wrong key hampered rescue workers' attempts to get to Beldon's wife, who thought she was having a heart attack.
"The first one that responded didn't realize there was a barricade. They got a supervisor who said, 'Yes, we have a key,'" Beldon said. "The supervisor responded, and the key didn't fit, so they had to call someone to come and break the chain so they could get in to save Erica's life."
Beldon said the delay that time was 28 minutes.
Three Boca Raton men are suing their HOA for refusing to open up its books. They each pay nearly $25,000 in annual dues at the Boca Grove Plantations, but when they wanted to see how that money was being spent, they said they were told by their HOA that it was none of their business.
Trying to find out why the HOA is hiding the figures has, so far, cost the men nearly $100,000 in legal fees.
Elsewhere in Boca, Jean Winters fought her HOA over a mailbox. Her board wanted every box to be the same. Winters wanted something simpler. The HOA finally gave in, but the battle lasted two years, and cost Winters $5,000 -- all over a mailbox.
"If the state doesn't step in, they are going to see a lot more problems and a lot more homeowners screaming because this is absurd," Winters said.
In Tallahassee, a homeowner association task force is expected later this month to issue its final report on controlling HOAs.
"These board members need to be educated as to not only their powers but their responsibilities and accountability to their homeowner members," task force chairman William Sklar, of West Palm Beach, said.
Among the expected recommendations: independent audits of association books and blocking associations from foreclosing on a home if the owner doesn't pay fines.
The task force in Tallahassee is not expected to recommend the creation of some sort of a state agency to oversee HOA boards, but critics said that is what is needed. They would like to see something established that is similar to the state agency that has regulated condominium association boards for more than 20 years, issuing fines and even recalling condo boards that break the law.
Task force member Jan Bergemann is head of the Florida advocacy group Cyber Citizens For Justice.
"I had hoped that the task force would recommend a government agency with enforcement power," Bergemann said.