Cory Lake Isles Sues For Access To Finances


Article Courtesy of The Tampa Tribune


Published November 13, 2007

TAMPA - For more than a decade, homeowners in New Tampa's posh Cory Lake Isles subdivision wrote checks to developer Gene Thomason and never questioned where the money went.

Maintenance workers mowed the grass. Security guards patrolled the gates. If something broke, or if a palm tree died, Thomason took care of it, eventually.

During the past five years, Thomason billed Cory Lake Isles residents more than $4.6 million to run the nearly 1,000-home community. Now seven homeowners have sued their developer-controlled property owners association for access to the community's financial records.

Tonight, the association's board could decide to assess every property owner in Cory Lake Isles to pay for its legal defense. The board invited homeowners to a special meeting tonight with its attorney.

"It's unfortunate that we had to do this kind of dance; and it is a dance," plaintiff Dan Morford said.

A Cory Lake Isles resident for three years, Morford also has applied for an open seat on Cory Lake Isle's community development district board.

He said the plaintiffs are not asking for damages, except for attorney's fees and the $500 statutory penalty for failing to turn over records. "We're not alleging any fraudulent behavior," he said. "All we're asking is, just show us the books."

Cory Lake Isle's neighborhood covenants gave Thomason complete control over the association. Fourteen years after it was established, the board never has held elections.

Though the covenants say the property owners association had the sole authority to assess residents and maintain the community's assets, it never did. Thomason's development company billed homeowners more than $1,000 a year.

The fee went up every year, even though the number of homes kept increasing. By 2006, the community had more than 900 individual owners, and each was billed $1,475 for operations and maintenance.

"The POA property owners association didn't have a contract with Gene Thomason or Cory Lakes Limited," Morford said. "It was a gentleman's agreement between Gene Thomason and Gene Thomason."

While it's not unusual for developers to wield control over their communities, Thomason is different. He still lives in the neighborhood and his wife's realty business leases part of the clubhouse for $1 a year.

He personally appoints the association board and controls its decisions, because he holds 500 votes for each undeveloped lot in the community. When a homeowner complained she was overcharged for copies, Thomason pulled out his wallet and handed her a $10 bill.

Earlier this year, Thomason agreed to shift the operations and management duties to the community development district board, but that board, which he also chairs, voted unanimously to award Thomason a no-bid until 2009.

The residents want to see the association's spending records, tax returns, contracts, audits and bank statements. They met privately with Thomason and association President Jane Taggart. They offered to go to mediation, but the association ignored the request.

"We just want the information we're entitled to," plaintiff Curtis Perry said.

The only thing they do know about the assessments is that Thomason never put any of it into a reserve fund for future repairs, Morford said.

Thomason's community development district seat is up for election in 2008. Homeowners are afraid he will pull out and leave them on the hook for costly repairs.

Thomason could not be reached for comment.