Group to government: Watch developers

Article Courtesy of The Ocala Star Banner

By Bill Thompson

Published January 25, 2012


Some of the natives are getting restless.

In September, local lawmakers expressed concern about the treatment of homeowners by developers and their inadequate — or nonexistent — services rendered by homeowners associations. Now local advocates for those homeowners are expressing their own discontent that nothing is being done to rectify the problem.

State Rep. Dennis Baxley said that's not the case, but there is concern in Tallahassee about how to proceed.

In a Jan. 12 letter to the Ocala Republican, members of the United Focus Group complained that they were in the dark as to what lawmakers were doing to address their gripes.

United Focus Group is an organization of homeowners primarily from the Cherrywood Estates subdivision in the State Road 200 corridor.

At the delegation's annual meeting in September, some of those residents joined others from the nearby Hardwood Trails community with stories about paying amenities fees that were not spent for their intended purpose and often increased without their consent.

They also said they felt intimidated by the developers that they say manipulate or mismanage their homeowners associations to retain control.

Baxley, in turn, sent a letter on behalf of the delegation to state Attorney General Pam Bondi, asking her to investigate the allegations.

Despite that request, in the recent email, Hugh Haggerty, treasurer of the United Focus Group, expressed disappointment that little had been done to this point. He described the letter as "very weak" and added that it failed to hone in on either the "gravity" or the scope of the situation with scofflaw developers statewide.

"It appears as if the state of Florida has granted developers a ‘carte blanche' to take advantage of Florida's senior citizens," Haggerty wrote.

In follow-up correspondence on Jan. 18, he wrote, "The state of Florida has allowed a monster to be created. It is time to kill the monster by abolishing [homeowners associations] and deliver Florida citizens from financial and legal oppression."

Yet some actions have occurred in recent weeks.

On. Dec. 1, Bondi sent a letter back to Baxley indicating that only the governor could order a special prosecutor or ask the state Supreme Court to seat a statewide grand jury.

Bondi, however, did refer the complaints to the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

She also informed Baxley that she would enlist the local offices of Seniors vs. Crime, a state-sponsored volunteer organization that tracks consumer crimes targeting senior citizens, to help field the complaints.

Meanwhile, the Sheriff's Office invited the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the accusations.

Undersheriff Dan Kuhn, who was at the September meeting and subsequently requested the state's involvement, declined to comment on what might have been uncovered, saying it was an open investigation.

But State Attorney Brad King has in the past viewed these complaints as grounds for civil — and not criminal — action, Kuhn said.

One reason, he added, was that state laws covering homeowners associations lack definite penalties.

"I do think this is an opportunity for the Legislature to define the actions of the developers and say what the penalties are," Kuhn said.

Baxley, in a recent interview, said lawmakers were interested in doing that but were not quite sure how to move forward. That, he suggested, might take some time.

"There is a concern, with the recession, that if we launch some effort that looks like an attack on developers, the legitimate guys will circle the wagons and you won't get at the bad actors you're trying to get," Baxley said.

Yet, he added, "no one's giving up or trying to pass the buck."

Haggerty said in an email Friday he's hopeful the FDLE may act. But he appeared unconvinced that lawmakers would follow through anytime soon.

"The HOA (homeowners association) problem is really big not only in Florida but in many other states. It seems the states are turning a blind eye to the issues being raised. It seems that our constitutional rights are being violated big time and we can do nothing about it," Haggerty said.

"It also appears that the Florida Legislature is protecting the big-time builders' interest, which have a very powerful lobby in Tallahassee," he said.