Mending fences has 2 meanings for group

Published May 14, 2004
Article Courtesy of the St. Petersburg Times/Brandon Times

A rift separates members of the Valrico Grove Homeowners Association. And a lot of that schism has to do with placement of fences.

VALRICO - Two years after residents took control of the Valrico Grove Homeowners Association, an election is highlighting rifts in the 90-home subdivision.

The residents who built fences too close to the street. The extra family car parked in the driveway, not the garage. When lawyers should get involved.

On Wednesday, residents will vote on proposed changes to community by-laws and restrictions after a year of growing pains saw several residents take the homeowners association to court.

Among other things, the homeowner's association now wants residents to pay whenever it seeks legal services to enforce community codes.

"You've got people on both sides of the fence, so to speak," said Dennis Sutphen, association president and corporate human resources officer.

Sutphen said the homeowner's association faces legal fees totalling more than $12,000 mostly over fence issues; it budgeted only $1,500. As a result, the community could not afford repairs to a sprinkler system and has not created a savings fund for emergencies as originally planned.

"It's been a tough year," said Sutphen, who is not seeking re-election to the board. "It's very time-consuming when there really isn't prior history to go before you."

Another proposed change would extend to two years the term for elected officers on the three-member homeowner's association.

Currently, officers are elected to one-year terms. The longer term would be phased in gradually.

The homeowners association also seeks to clarify code restrictions applying to the placement of fences, a contentious issue in the past year because several residents were asked to move inappropriately placed fences. In a few cases, the issue required legal attention.

Another proposed change would restrict residents from displaying signs for birth announcements and other milestones for longer than five days without the approval of the association. Currently, none are allowed under community codes.

Resident Cesar Padilla believes the association has gone too far.

Earlier this year, the association forced him to relocate a fence that violated community codes. He did so, absorbing $700 in lost supplies.

But when the association did not promptly provide him with documention on some variances granted to neighbors, he sued.

Padilla said a judge referred the case to mediation, and the parties ultimately settled.

Now Padilla fears that the association would abuse fee-collecting rights as an excuse to involve attorneys in all community disputes.

"It's out of control right now," said Padilla, 50, who works for the county. He said Valrico Grove does not need additional rules, but leaders who can take care of community needs without unnecessary litigation. 

The election will take place during an annual membership meeting of the Valrico Grove Homeowners Association starting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Valrico Elementary. Homeowners who cannot attend may vote by proxy.

Half of the association members present at the meeting must vote yes to change the officers' terms. Changes to community covenants, such as the fence and signage issues, require a two-thirds majority of all members of the homeowner's association, regardless of attendance at the meeting.