Sterling Ranch owners get dues sticker shock
BRANDON A 30 percent hike covers tough restrictions enforcement, says the board.

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

By Andrew Meacham

Published November 5, 2007


Residents of Sterling Ranch wanted to be surrounded by tidy homes and neatly kept lawns. It's why they moved into a deed-restricted community.

But upkeep in the Brandon community had slipped in recent years. Yards were overgrown. Houses needed a coat of paint. Some residents weren't picking up their trash.

So a year ago, Sterling Ranch fired property manager Ron Trowbridge and replaced him with a more expensive manager who promised results.

"We needed to maintain the neighborhood at a higher quality," said Rees Nickerson, 67, president of the 793-home subdivision east of Providence Road.

Lou Ellen Wilson promptly issued hundreds of citations for such offenses as brown lawns. She sped up the time from warning letters to legal action.

Last week at a budget meeting, board members applauded the new get-tough strategy. Then they handed residents a 30 percent increase in homeowners dues.

Some of the residents who were there objected.

"I don't want to see the neighborhood go into disrepair," Donald Lutz told the board. "But do it within the confines of what people are willing to pay. I don't think anybody wants to pay 30 percent."

The board held firm, raising the budget to $297,000, almost all from homeowners dues. Property owners with larger lots will see the largest dues increase.

A chunk of the higher dues, initially taken from a reserve account, will make up the difference between Trowbridge's $36,000 fee and $57,000 for Wilson's services. Among several property managers interviewed, Wilson was the highest bidder, said board member Dwight McDonald, who voted against the budget.

Nearly a quarter of the increase pays for enforcement against residents who don't pay dues or fix their properties. These costs include attorney's fees and a change to sending enforcement notices to residents by certified mail.

"The major reason for the increase," Nickerson told residents in a newsletter, "are the high costs associated with vandalism at the pool, the increases in costs for services and increased legal fees associated with enforcing deed restrictions."

Nickerson also reminded residents that dues had not increased for the previous three years.

Of the $68,000 increase, vandalism and all pool maintenance costs accounted for only $1,900, the association's budget figures show. "The money is in legal and the money is in management [costs]," McDonald said."

Trowbridge, the past manager, blamed laws requiring mediators to settle disputes with homeowners.

"You've got to have state-certified mediators, statutory notices, travel," Trowbridge said. "It's supposed to protect the homeowner, but it really creates a problem."

Who might need a mediator soon? Sterling Ranch now has 131 letters out to residents who have violated deed restrictions, McDonald said. If the demands are not satisfied, the association's attorney is the next step.

Another 18 out of 793 homeowners in Sterling Ranch have not paid their dues.

Despite the controversy, the neighborhood's more aggressive approach may be paying off.

"We've been seeing improvement," Nickerson said.