Lake woes could be costly for community



Article Courtesy of NewsPress

By Dick Hogan

Published January 8, 2007


The past is coming back to haunt homeowners and a well-known developer in an upscale enclave in south Fort Myers.

Lakes in the 547-acre Gulf Harbour community are the problem.

Improper design and maintenance during two decades have taken their toll in erosion people's yards being eaten away in some instances.


Now, Lee County environmental enforcers want the lakes fixed, and their demands for a multimillion- dollar solution are bearing down on homeowners and Gulf Harbour's developer, WCI Communities.

Fixing the lakes could mean huge bills nobody knows exactly how much for the more than 2,000 residents if they have to pick up the tab.

County inspectors have issued 20 citations against Bonita Springs-based WCI, various homeowners' associations and individual homeowners in Gulf Harbour.

 The large lake that borders the driving range at Gulf Harbour is one of the community's many lakes that has residents worried about costly erosion.

The inspectors are demanding the developer, the associations or homeowners present plans to remedy the situation.

Nobody denies there are problems with the lakes, many of which are too deep or lack the plants and proper slope necessary to keep them stable. Some are starting to chew into residents' backyards and flooding eventually could result.


Nobody denies there are problems with the lakes, many of which are too deep or lack the plants and proper slope necessary to keep them stable. Some are starting to chew into residents' backyards and flooding eventually could result.

But a legal storm is brewing over who will have to pay for the work. The Gulf Harbour Master Association filed a lawsuit three months ago against WCI after negotiations broke down.

If WCI doesn't pay, the lawsuit alleges, the association will have to assess its members so it can "expend large sums of money for the repair and maintenance of the property, and for damages caused by the defects and deficiencies."

A retaining wall lines the lake behind the eighth green at Gulf Harbour on Thursday. The Gulf Harbour Master Association has filed a lawsuit against developer WCI Communities asking for damages because of design flaws in lakes throughout the community. 

WCI officials did not return calls for comment, but the company's lawyers have filed court papers contending the association has no legal grounds to sue because it hasn't established "allegations of ultimate fact" to show what actually happened.

WCI actually inherited the situation. One of its predecessors, Florida Design Communities, took over Gulf Harbour in 1993 from Ramar Group, the original developer, which started it in 1981 but ran into financial difficulties in the early 1990s.


Figuring out the facts of the controversy could be a daunting task, said Pete Eckenrode, director of development services for the Lee County Department of Community Development.

There's no way to tell, for example, whether freshwater aquatic plants that should rim the lakes aren't there because of the developer's negligence or subsequent actions by homeowners or community associations, Eckenrode said.

But Don Tate, a member of the association's board, said it's clear to him WCI and the people it hired to dig the lakes should shoulder responsibility for the engineering studies and the "tens of thousand of truckloads" of dirt that will be required to remedy the situation.

"I think it's got to go back to the person who obtained the permit to build the lake and they didn't build it properly, which is obviously the case. Then it should go to the engineer who certified it as well," Tate said.

WCI also is responsible for maintenance of the lakes during the years if that turns out to be the problem, he said.

Ironically, Tate said, the county learned of the problems three years ago when the association gave it an engineering report detailing the problems.

"It seems like a real contradiction to be citing the people who are being offended by the lake encroaching on their property and they're being told to do something about it," he said.

According to a county attorney's opinion, Eckenrode said, current owners of the lakes sometimes WCI, sometimes community associations and sometimes individuals are legally obligated to fix the problems.

Eckenrode said each problem with the lakes is different.

"It's not every lake out there," he said, "and not every portion of any one lake."


Even though many of the lakes and other common areas were supposed to be turned over to the master association three years ago, Tate said, "they have yet to turn over a single piece of the condo elements legally to the master association."

The issues can be convoluted. Frank Caroselli, a member of the Committee for Early Turnover of Gulf Harbour's golf and country club, said the committee has put its plans on hold because it doesn't want to assume the liability that could come with owning the golf course's three lakes.

WCI manages the club, although the members own it through a separate group, he said.

Although WCI has assured members the club doesn't own the lakes, county property records show otherwise, Caroselli said.

"Lee County obviously thinks the club owns the lake," he said.

The bottom line, he said, is "we decided we don't want to touch this with a 10-foot pole" until the legal issues with the lakes are resolved.

Meanwhile, Caroselli said, the committee is preparing for the worst: asking country club members to contribute to a fund that would be used to get legal representation if it comes to that.

"We're trying to put something together as a war chest more than anything else," he said.

Ray Judah, a county commissioner who has been working with the parties involved in the dispute, said part of the problem is laws regarding lake construction weren't as strong in the late 1980s as they are now.

"I believe the laws have certainly been strengthened as far as addressing these types of issues," Judah said.

WCI and the community associations have been working with the county on proposals to fix the damage, he said.

"We're trying to get this worked out with the various entities," Judah said.

Meanwhile, erosion is causing continuing damage and the county will demand action be taken at some point, Eckenrode said.

"The clock is running," he said, "and we want to see some concrete action taken."

Tate agreed action needs to be taken and said some deals to sell homes in Gulf Harbour have fallen through because of buyers' and lenders' concerns.

"The lakes are bigger than they should be," he said. "And they're growing."