Poinciana residents challenge developer in election dispute

Article Courtesy of The  Orlando Sentinel

By Ryan Gillespie and Beth Kassab

Published June 23, 2017


POINCIANA — A dispute over who should control Poinciana, which says it has the largest homeowners association in Florida, could hinge on a strip of pine woods dotted with soggy marshland on the eastern shore of Lake Marion.

At stake is control over a 44-year-old community with more than 50,000 residents, about the size of Apopka.

A homeowner is challenging whether Avatar, the developer of the community of 26,000 homes, can cast thousands of votes in the HOA elections based on its ownership of hundreds of parcels of land. Much of it is undeveloped and, in some cases such as the property along Lake Marion, marshy and potentially off-limits for new construction.

Avatar contends it can cast one vote for every developed lot it owns and additional votes for homes the company says it could eventually build.

Martin Negron, who ran for the HOA board during the annual election in February, said he lost because Avatar improperly used such pieces of land to cast more votes and elect the company’s favored candidates. He said Avatar, also known as AV Homes, wants to maintain its hold over the massive community that straddles Polk and Osceola counties between Haines City and Kissimmee.

“The reason to get on the board is so we can vote on behalf of the residents, not the developer,” said Negron, a retired warehouse worker from New York who has lived in Poinciana for about 10 years. “They don’t want anyone that is going to ruffle their feathers.”

The association maintains his complaint “is based on a fundamental misunderstanding [of] Poinciana’s governing documents,” said Orlando attorney Tom Slaten, who represents the HOA.

Negron filed a complaint with the state agency that oversees HOA elections. An arbitrator could decide soon if the election will stand or be tossed out.

A group of residents has contended for years that they lack representation on the board, which sets homeowner fees and controls the budget. The Association of Poinciana Villages, the official name of the HOA made up of nine villages, collects $252 from each property owner every year.

A separate lawsuit filed by three homeowners is challenging the association in Polk Circuit Court, while homeowners in another Avatar community, Solivita, are also suing the developer.

Negron’s complaint filed with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation says Avatar is casting thousands of votes by misstating the number of acres in some parcels it owns and claiming the right to build new homes on vacant land that is too soggy to meet today’s standards in Polk and Osceola.

Avatar said the strip of land on Lake Marion spans 454 acres, where it could build 12 homes per acre.

Negron’s complaint points to Polk County Property Appraiser records, which list the property as smaller than what Avatar claims — 352 acres — including marshlands and flood zones. He contends the 100-plus acre difference allowed Avatar to cast more than 1,000 votes it shouldn’t have in defeating him for a seat on the Village 7 board.

Slaten said Negron’s lawyers should be looking at the official plats, which he says are the “legal recorded documents.”

“The true description for each parcel is based on the plat,” said Slaten, of Larsen & Associates. “You would never rely on the property appraiser to the point you would ignore the actual recorded documents.”

Chanda Bennett, Polk’s comprehensive planning administrator, also used the appraiser’s records to determine the property’s acreage. She noted that some Poinciana plats date back decades, long before today’s building rules were put in place. She said a developer would need to meet today’s standards, and some of the wetlands on the property may not receive approvals for home construction.

In all, the complaint filed by attorney Jennifer Englert of the Orlando Law Group argues that Avatar cast at least 1,600 illegal votes when other disputed plats are added.

Slaten said he’s seen no evidence of the developer holding onto property for the sake of increasing the number of votes it can cast and that Avatar’s voting power has decreased annually as it’s sold land.

“Everything I’ve seen is the developer is making continuing progress in selling property,” he said. “You don’t make any money just holding on to raw land.”