Waterside Watchdogs sue builder over neglect

Article Courtesy of The Orlando Sentinel

By Lauren Ritchie

Published July 25, 2016


    Lake County's perennial protesters at Waterside Pointe recently kicked up the festivities a notch when they filed a class-action lawsuit against the developers of the subdivision where they've been protesting for nearly two years.

Perhaps you've seen the Waterside Watchdogs. The crew has moved from a location in front of the developer's office inside the Groveland subdivision to frontage on State Road 50 during the weekend protests. (Hey, the developer sued to have them moved and won that point, so they went to an even more visible spot, thus illustrating for developer CalAtlantic Group Inc. the irony in the old adage, "Be careful what you wish for — you might get it.")

The lawsuit filed by Eustis lawyer Derek Schroth is just beginning, but its complaints are familiar: It asks a judge to declare the developer in violation of the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act and force CalAtlantic to clean up the community, where the amenities "are in a constant state of neglect," despite advertising to the contrary.

Among the biggest of the disputes is a body of water the developer called Crystal Lake. It's advertised as turquoise sparkling lake with a sand bottom perfect for skiing, boating and fishing. Today, it's a 220-acre, hydrilla-choked, brown retention pond where construction debris has been dumped.

The suit asks a judge to order CalAtlantic to restore the lake, give residents access to the boat ramp, to fully repair a Wet 'N Wild-style waterslide that collapsed at the community pool, to build a promised bike trail, boardwalk, fishing platform and playground and to maintain and provide pest control at a variety of community gathering spots.

The suit also wants the developer and management company to fix roads and street lights, maintain the stormwater system, stabilize erosion of banks on Crystal Lake, paint common areas, remove dead trees, fix the entry gates, staff a guardhouse and repair irrigation systems in the common areas.

"The landscaping is as bad as it ever was. I went in the gym the other day, and it was the worst in seven years. It was filthy," said Scott Dau, a retired police lieutenant who is one of the representatives of the class in the lawsuit. "The entry gates are broken all the time — I can ramble on for hours if you want."

Nah, we get it, Scott. Those complaints are pretty standard for residents unhappy with developers. But here is where it gets interesting.

Waterside Pointe, like every other development with a homeowner association in Florida, is controlled by the developer until three months after 90 percent of the parcels in all phases of the community are sold. That means that the developer also controls how to spend the quarterly homeowner fees the owners of each lot pays.

In this suit, the representatives of the class, Dau and his wife, Veronica, and paramedic Mark Feeser are demanding to see invoices proving that the money was spent for the good of the community and contracts with vendors to show there is a good-faith effort to maintain Waterside Pointe.

They want to examine financial and bank statements and want the judge to order the developer to refund any money that may have been improperly spent.

The Daus and Feeser contend the developer agreed to open the books in return for the protesters agreeing to stop their public and embarrassing protests, but CalAtlantic didn't keep up its end of the bargain.

No one in the CalAtlantic office in Winter Park would discuss the lawsuit, and a spokesman from the corporate offices in California did not return a phone call asking them to discuss the allegations.

However, it's clear that the protesters have a point. For what they're paying, they and their neighbors should be living in a combo of Disney World and the Garden of Eden. Dau, for example, said he pays $1,899 annually. If all 403 homeowners paid the same, that would be $765,297 annually that the developer has to spend on keeping up the subdivision. That's a hefty pot of cash.

Consider that if it cost $2,000 a week for landscape and grounds maintenance in the common areas, there would still be more $660,000 to spend on the upkeep of other amenities.

Waterside Pointe is lucky to have its citizen-watchdogs, especially now, when companies like CalAtlantic have stepped in after original developers ran into financial trouble in the bust. The outlook from some of the surviving companies seems to be that residents ought to be grateful to them because things could be far worse if a development were abandoned.

Things may be worse, but homeowners don't owe any companies their gratitude. The builders are there because they think they can make money. And of course, they're entitled to make a buck — just not off the backs of residents.

Here's hoping the Waterside Pointe Watchdogs get some answers — and some relief.