Cheval opposes bringing outside in

A Cheval property owner thinks he can build on land just outside

the community and link the two. His neighbors say otherwise.


Article Courtesy of the St. Petersburg Times

Published November 22, 2004

LUTZ - When Rand Gentry switched from softball to hardball, the political effect rippled through the stately neighborhoods of Cheval like nothing before.

Driving into the development May 21, Dean Redfern noticed workmen digging up land owned by the homeowners association, of which he is a board member. Gentry, who is trying to expand Cheval's residential section by 22 acres, had pitched a plan to run a road there.

Redford went home, snatched up his camera and started taking photos. He demanded the workers stop digging.

The workers called a supervisor.

"He said they would bash my head in and break my camera," Redfern said.

That fight came three days before the Cheval Property Owners Association was to decide whether Gentry, who controls the Cheval Golf and Country Club, should be allowed to hook his new development onto Cheval. The property owners turned him down, but the matter has not been laid to rest.

The Gentry plan has spawned four zoning showdowns and a three-pack of lawsuits. Legal bills for the homeowners association are closing in on $200,000, although not all of this is related to Gentry. He said he has paid his lawyers more than $170,000.

"It has been an absolute war in our neighborhood," said community president Lea Welch, sifting through the fallout at a homeowners meeting Wednesday night.

All this in northwest Hillsborough County's best-known nest of affluence, a community born in a pastoral vision of polo ponies. Cheval, with its guarded gates and private roads, was where Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf moved after he won the Gulf War. It was where Phil Esposito lived after he founded the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Gentry's venture has brought a jarring counterpoint to the sense of security, the notion that someone with land inside Cheval's wall could acquire more land outside, knock down the wall in between and add a subdivision.


Gentry, 59, has followed the construction, condominium and development business around the country. After finishing college in Arizona, he worked in the Pacific Northwest, Tennessee and Arkansas. The condo business lured Gentry to Tampa in 1973.

He spent three years upgrading Largo's Bardmoor Country Club and creating the posh Bayou Club, then 17 months in litigation against his financial backer. He settled by cutting his ties in Largo - and accepting $1-million.

Eight months after Gentry moved to Cheval in 1995, he bought 23 vacant lots there. Now, they are filling up with $1-million houses.

Within a year, Gentry was leading an effort by country club members to buy the club from Cheval's development company. Investors bought shares for as much as $16,000 apiece. Gentry bought eight, more than anybody else.

In October 1997, the group paid $3.25-million for the club. Gentry became the first president.

The opening year was a disaster, ending in a $800,000 deficit. Gentry blamed confusing bookkeeping by the club's management company. In 2000, the country club entered bankruptcy court to devalue the shares and eliminate a pledge to refund investments.

"The club never had any working capital after that," said Jim Pickerill, who became its president in 2003. "We lived hand to mouth."

Gentry said the 15-year-old club has been handicapped by lack of a banquet hall, which would subsidize other club functions. He proposed to build one in the 1990s but was voted down.

Yet 82 percent of the country club's members voted to sell the club last year to Gentry's group over other competitive offers, Pickerill said.

They had to sell, Pickerill said. Member spending slowed after the 2001 terrorist attacks. "We made a determination that we could no longer exist."

The sale closed Nov. 20, 2003. It was valued at $2.52-million, mostly based on Gentry's payment of country club debts.

On the same day, another corporation owned by Gentry and the same investors paid $1-million for a horse farm. It lay just outside Cheval's main entrance, on the opposite side of the wall from the golf course's eighth hole.

Gentry closed the deals simultaneously in the offices of his Tampa attorneys, shuttling between two conference rooms.

By then, Gentry's relations with the homeowners association were chilly.

The wall falls

Gentry had broached the horse farm deal through intermediaries to the homeowners board in February 2003. The board represents the 505 owners of homes and condos in Cheval East, the older half of Cheval. The 800-home Cheval West, where Gentry lives, is governed separately.

Court papers show Gentry offered to require residents to be dues-paying members of the association, subject to all rules affecting other Cheval East homeowners, and to donate land for a soccer field.

The board turned him down.

That summer, 10 days after country club members voted to sell the club to Gentry, his attorney applied to rezone the horse farm for 39 homes.

Welch, the board president, said they were blindsided by the move. Association attorneys wrote letters to Cheval residents, urging them to turn out in opposition.

The confrontations produced a tangle of emotions and legal questions. As the issue headed to the Hillsborough County Commission in May, Cheval residents received dueling letters.

If the rezoning failed, Gentry wrote, he would build 100 or more condominiums next to the country club's driving range, an area many Cheval residents long thought to be off-limits to development.

The board's attorney, for his part, warned that Gentry could claim rights to build as many as 222 condos, and residents should withhold support until he disclosed his plans.

Gentry began excavating the driveway on a Friday. The next Monday, homeowners voted 226 to 90 against allowing his project into Cheval. That Tuesday, the homeowners' attorneys sued Gentry and railed against his rezoning before the County Commission.

The meeting was so fiery that commissioners postponed the issue for two weeks, urging the parties to compromise. But none was reached. The commission rejected the rezoning June 8, leaving Gentry with a limit of 22 houses instead of 39.

In court, Gentry countersued, seeking damages for interference with business relationships. He filed a separate slander suit against the board, Welch and another board member, citing their statements in the rezonings and lawyers' letters.

Judge Perry Little ordered Nov. 1 that Gentry not use the new driveway, which slices between the golf course's eighth green and ninth tee. Gentry said he met with his lawyers that Friday and was assured the ruling didn't block him from demolishing the wall beside his horse farm.

"We work six or seven days a week anyway," Gentry said. "We got the clearance on Friday. We moved the equipment in and started."

The wall fell on a Saturday, as copies of Little's order spread through Cheval. The next day, the Times published a story about the order.

Someone photocopied it, adding a note about the wall's destruction and scrawling "IN YOUR FACE!!!" on a cover sheet. The person left it in mailboxes. About 100 residents complained to Cheval's security office.

"Scorched earth'

Wednesday night's annual association election wasn't held at the traditional place, Cheval's country club, because of the lawsuits involving Gentry and the club. Instead, 150 homeowners gathered in the nearby Heritage Harbor country club.

All seven board seats were up for election. Candidates on both sides complained about the demolished wall. They asked for a compromise. New candidates criticized the board's incumbents.

Mike Dayton, one of the challengers, urged a middle ground approach, "not a mandate to fight Mr. Gentry at all costs, scorched earth."

But incumbents were re-elected, and none of the critics received more than a fourth of the vote.

People on both sides agree that Gentry's chief support comes from country club members. But only about a third of Cheval East homeowners are members.

Gentry said he has the community's best interests at heart. He's simply trying to improve the country club and offer up prime homesites nearby. He plans to build a 200-seat lakefront banquet hall. Already he has added a playground in the parking lot of the French provincial Chateau Cheval recreation center. He still plans a soccer field.

"The club really needs a place where you can bring kids and be comfortable," he said.

Gentry wants to lessen the misery of Cheval's golfers by eliminating 40 sand traps - which was where the wall came in. Gentry wants to fill those traps with crushed masonry from the wall, dirt from the horse farm and sod.

On the par-three eighth hole, the first one a visitor sees entering Cheval's main entrance, Gentry plans to enlarge a pond to create a bona fide island green.

Still in court but needing to move ahead, Gentry has drawn an alternate entrance road from the north.

Mansions on his new lots will overlook the refashioned eighth hole. The owners will just have to take a back road to get there.