Developer isn't delivering, Heritage Pines residents allege

Residents of the Hudson neighborhood have plenty of complaints against Lennar.

An inadequate supply of reclaimed water really makes them boil.

                             

Article Courtesy of St. Petersburg Times

By CHUIN-WEI YAP

Published September 11, 2006

HUDSON - Larry Lampe moved into Heritage Pines 2 years ago with a promise from developer Lennar Communities of cheap reclaimed water for his lawn.

"They made a big deal of it," he said. "They said we would be able to irrigate at a reduced rate because of reclaimed water, which was good for conservation and all the hype that goes with that."

But for five consecutive weeks this summer, Lampe went without seeing a drop of the reclaimed water.

Half the lawns in Heritage Pines are starved of reclaimed water, even as Pasco officials notably dumped thousands of gallons of excess wastewater into a tributary of the Hillsborough River.

The homeowners on reclaimed water here have no backup water source - neither the county nor the developer saw to it.

Today, about 200 residents plan to take the County Commission floor, where they will call for Pasco to halt all developments until it can take care of existing residents' needs.

* * *

Studded with soaring pines, the 1,268-home Heritage Pines is a picture of stately luxury from the outside.

Lying just east of U.S. 19 on the northern county line, the community boasts a manicured golf course that undulates in a lush sprawl behind its brick-lined gates.

Inside the gates, residents say the reality is uglier.

They speak of Lennar overpromising and then failing to deliver amenities, under what they describe as Pasco County's indulgent eye.

Without a reliable supply of reclaimed water, Heritage Pines' golf course risks expensive damage. "We have zero dollars in reserve to handle this," said resident E.J. Ludolph.

A second entrance was promised but never built. Lennar held onto an RV/boat storage facility - and its $10,000 in annual revenues -- even though residents say both should have reverted to the homeowners association.

It's a coming-of-age story that has echoes all over the county and state, of illusions shattered and inadequacies exposed as community management shifts from developer to residents.

In Heritage Pines, that transition took place on Jan. 31, a month after residents first took their grievances to the County Commission.

Today, there are at least 19 areas where residents want redress, but it is over reclaimed water that passions boil. About half the homes should have reclaimed water, while the other homes were designed to use groundwater.

"We've had the patience of Job since December," said Camelia Brust, an organizer of the civic outburst. "We're only getting 50 percent of our water needs. Lennar is not delivering on the contract ... and, with the county, it appears, the fox is watching the henhouse."

Heritage Pines' golf course, common areas and 658 homes need about 1.5-million gallons of water a day. Of this amount, the homes need 420,000 gallons.

Daily readings that residents took at a reclaimed water holding pond show only half that need delivered from December through August, and days on end when the county pumped no reclaimed water at all.

"Things look good outside, until you get into some of the villages," said resident Jake Engle. "Then you see dying lawns and bug infestations because the grass isn't healthy."

For Lampe, it is clear who's responsible.

"Lennar has hooked up way too many homes for what the system is capable of supporting," he said. "They are still selling homes to people, promising them reclaimed water. They're overpromising and not delivering, and not a single county official wants to do anything about it."

Lampe paid $2,400 to join the reclaimed water system. He's still paying $29 a month for the privilege.

* * *

Ken Wagner, vice president of Lennar's land development division, did not return a call for comment.

But Bruce Kennedy, the county's utilities director, said Pasco never promised there would be enough reclaimed water.

"I think we made that very clear to the developer at the time," he said. "They wanted to create a system to irrigate the villages. We agreed on the understanding that there may be times when we don't have enough to share."

In 1998, a well-drilling accident produced a massive pressure wave that induced 700 sinkholes within 40 acres at Heritage Pines.

Lennar came to Pasco after the developer found it could not meet irrigation needs through groundwater alone, Kennedy said.

Heritage Pines has a permit to pump just 347,000 gallons of freshwater a day, said Michael Molligan, spokesman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud. Discussions began on a second permit this summer, Molligan said, but no application has been received.

Why did Pasco even allow Lennar to install and market an amenity it could not sustain?

"I don't know how much clearer we could have made it," Kennedy said. "I can't make sure they hand out a disclosure form to every buyer out there. What people tell people about buying and selling homes, I'm not regulating that industry."

The signs point to a heavily compartmentalized county government and an absence of regulatory oversight.

"I don't know if utilities ever promised reuse, but that's Bruce Kennedy's issue, really," said Bipin Parikh, assistant county administrator for development services. "On development order issues, growth management administrator Sam Steffey is going through it. I am handling the second access issue."

County regulations require a community to have a second entrance once it reaches 600 homes. Heritage Pines now has more than twice that threshold - and still no second entrance.

Parikh met with Lennar on Friday to discuss the issue, and vowed there would be no Certificates of Occupancy for Heritage Pines' remaining 99 homes until the developer builds the second entrance.

Residents are still furious that Parikh apparently misinformed them on an earlier occasion on the provision of the acceleration lane, the distances between entrances and the start date for the work.

"I do not have a lot of confidence in (Parikh's assurances) because of previous experience," said Brust. "They don't even have an approved plat plan showing that road."

* * *

The state Department of Environmental Protection said reclaimed water services are a county matter, over which the state has no regulations, said spokeswoman Pamala Vazquez.

As the fiasco at Heritage Pines unfolded, Pasco was facing fines for dumping excess wastewater into the Hillsborough River on the east side of the county.

But Kennedy said that happened during hurricane season, when there was too much water all around. All ponds fill up with rain, so it would make no sense piping it over from east to west without adequate storage, he said. Plus, that water might not have met the standards for use as reclaimed water, Kennedy said.

Pasco is now pursuing supplementary wells to beef up its reclaimed water services for Heritage Pines and other areas. But he said Swiftmud must approve the plans.

Kennedy said the county already has turned down reclaimed water requests from Ballantrae, Suncoast Meadows, parts of Meadow Pointe and other developments along Curley Road and Wells Road.

Pasco has 10,000 paying customers for reclaimed water; Heritage Pines is not among them, he said. Paying customers come first.

Recent rain aside, this summer had the longest dry spells Lampe has ever known in Heritage Pines.

He's thankful for his garden hose.

"We've gone three weeks before, sometimes four (without reclaimed water)," he said. "You get your hose out and water your plants and lawn with it."

 

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