AG asked to examine developer problem


Article Courtesy of The Ocala Star Banner

By Bill Thompson

Published October 9, 2011

State lawmakers who represent Marion County are calling on Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to investigate potential incidents of wrongdoing by local developers.

Rep. Dennis Baxley said in a recent interview that the letter to Bondi requesting that her staff look into, as he put it, “egregious and maybe even criminal” conduct by some developers should be ready in about a week — that is, after the rest of the county's legislative delegation reviews the document and agrees to its language.

The move comes after lawmakers heard repeated tales of woe from a half-dozen local homeowners and advocates for homeowners' rights at the delegation's annual meeting on Sept. 27.

“It was hard to hear and it was sad to hear and the delegation definitely wanted to move forward,” Baxley, an Ocala Republican and the nine-member panel's chairman, said of the lawmakers' unanimous decision to petition Bondi for help.

Baxley said for him personally, the toughest part was the recurring “theme” of the citizen presentations: That people felt intimidated by the person who established the community they lived in — even to the point of actually leaving their 

Residents have complained to lawmakers about the Hardwood Trails development.

homes to escape the developer's control.

“It shouldn't be like that,” he said.

According to some who attended the meeting, those who spoke had lived in subdivisions geared to senior citizens.

They complained to lawmakers about being shortchanged, as amenities fees were collected — and increased — but not spent for their intended purpose. They also felt they had little control over or voice in the management of their homeowners associations because of developers' hijinks.

One example came from Don Kronen, a former resident of the Hardwood Trails subdivision in the State Road 200 corridor.

Kronen told the committee about his home and others being built but not finished by the developer, costing some buyers as much as $150,000.

In the course of multiple lawsuits, judges had declared the developer an unlicensed contractor. The developer also raised maintenance fees by nearly 1,000 percent, and threatened foreclosure on people who didn't pay up, Kronen said.

Kronen also related how residents' complaints were not addressed by a host of state and county officials.

Hardwood Trails was developed by John Zacco.

According to Baxley, two lawmakers — Sens. Charlie Dean and Steve Oelrich, the former sheriffs of Citrus and Alachua counties, respectively — were particularly troubled by the complaints and called for an investigation.

Baxley said there would be challenges to a probe.

For example, he noted, the size and composition of homeowners associations, or HOAs, might present obstacles to crafting legislation that doesn't produce some “unintended consequences.”

“But,” he added, “we have a duty to see that people are treated right.”

Baxley indicated that in general terms the letter would ask Bondi to provide guidance as to whether the problems brought to the delegation were attributable to “bad actors” or are “systemic” shortcomings that can be rectified by changing the laws affecting HOAs.

Baxley said he would present the minutes of the delegation meeting and other documents to Bondi and encourage her to talk to the residents who appeared before the panel last week.

“We need an evaluation of what happened and an understanding of what needs to happen from our delegation,” Baxley said. “It's our turn to see what we can do.”