Little hope for Nature's Watch
At best, the maintenance woes of the subdivision
will be a cautionary tale, the governor's task force said.

Article Courtesy of St. Petersburg Times
Published December 9, 2003

TAMPA - When East Lake residents told a statewide task force Monday about the widespread damage and astronomical repair bills at the Nature's Watch subdivision, the panel was sympathetic but offered no help.

If nothing else, one member of the governor's Homeowners' Association Task Force said the nightmare ought to be used as a cautionary tale, so that it never happens again.

"It sounds very disturbing," task force co-chair William Sklar said after hearing that repair bills at Nature's Watch could top $92,000 per family and have driven many residents into foreclosure proceedings.

Because it involves a case where all homeowners have been held liable for repairs needed in some units, the Nature's Watch case points out the need for better up-front disclosure to home buyers "so that people know clearly and unambiguously what they are buying into it," said Sklar, an attorney and director of the Miami University School of Law's Institutes on Real Property Law, Condomiunium and Cluster Development.

But any legislative changes in the future will do nothing to help Nature's Watch residents, he said.

For now, said Nature's Watch resident Jim Foggett, that may be enough.

"People should not move to Florida and be put, unknowingly, in a situation like this that could bankrupt them," Foggett said.

For some Nature's Watch residents who fear losing their dream home, seeking help has become a full-time job. For more than three years, they have called and sent letters to judges, county commissioners, attorneys, building officials, state legislators and the media

On Monday, they went to downtown Tampa, where the governor's task force made a local stop.

Nature's Watch resident Ed McDermott laid out the community's well-publicized woes: the extensive water damage; the judge's decision that all 182 townhouse residents were on the hook for repairs; and later, the estimated repair cost of $92,000 per homeowner.

"We're trying anything we can to get anyone to listen to us," McDermott said.

What most galls resident John Doran and several others who spoke Monday is that they did not buy into a condominium. Doran said he and others were led to believe the homeowners association was only to care for common areas, like cutting the grass and cleaning the pool, and for exterior maintenance, like occasionally repainting the buildings. Residents were required to get their own homeowners insurance policies.

So the judge's interpretation that the homeowners association was responsible to repair everything from the interior paint out came as a shock. If that ruling is not overturned on appeal, he said, it could have far-reaching consequences for townhouse owners statewide.

The task force, which has met four times this year at various locations around the state, will make recommendations for legislative changes to the governor and state legislators.

In addition to more extensive disclosure to home buyers, the task force also is considering legislation that would provide legal standing for homeowners associations against developers who do not meet minimum building standards. It also will weigh additional warranty protections.

Lastly, the task force is considering an organized arbitration and mediation process.

Good idea, Doran said. "Get the lawyers out of it."

Doran is one of 34 Nature's Watch residents who recently were served with a foreclosure lawsuit for failing to keep up with the $28,000 in assessments levied so far. He fears the cost per homeowner may spiral well over the estimated $92,000. He predicts a last-man-standing scenario in which the burden on residents will rise as more and more neighbors declare bankruptcy.

"This community is going to collapse on itself," Doran said.

Doran said he's all for the legislative changes being discussed He just wishes it could help him and his neighbors.

"Unfortunately," Sklar said, "it may be too late for Nature's Watch."

Same old story, Doran said.