Betmar Acres Sues Resident Over Trailer


Article Courtesy of The Tampa Tribune

By Laura Kinsler

Published December 22, 2008

ZEPHYRHILLS - When Betmar Acres resident Cheryl Okke replaced her 1971 trailer with a new mobile home, she thought her homeowners association would be elated.

She thought wrong.

Apparently her 2005-model home, which had never been lived in before, wasn't quite new enough. Betmar Acres is suing to make her remove it.

At issue is a discrepancy between the community's bylaws and its deed restrictions. The deed restrictions say property owners can not install mobile homes unless they are new. The homeowners association bylaws further restrict owners from installing new mobile homes that are more than a year old.

Okke said she was not aware of the 12-month rule, adopted by the board in 2007. She paid $55,000 in 2007 for her lot and for an existing mobile home in the age-restricted community. She wanted to fix up the existing unit, but there was no way to bring it up to code. So she bought a new mobile home.

Knowing the unit had to be new, she shopped around for the best deal. She found it at Karsten Gallery of Homes in Zephyrhills. It was a two-bedroom, two-bath model with a big front porch.

The nearly 1,200-square foot unit had been a lot model, so it had upgrades, such as tile floors and stainless steel appliances. Okke's $100,500 contract also included a stucco skirting, a new driveway and a carport. She wanted to pull up carpet and install wood floors. She painted the exterior blue.

"Everybody knew I was buying a new home," Okke said. "There were even members of the board who came up and congratulated me."

Problems From The Start

She said the problems started in March - the day the unit was delivered. The unit was a 2005 model. Okke said she understood why the board wanted only new units. "They don't want older, repossessed or dirty trailers being moved into the community," she said.

The association ordered her to stop work on the unit, so she has no skirting and still has temporary stairs. She asked for a variance but got no reply. When she had the unit painted, the board filed an injunction against Okke and her dealer, Karston Gallery of Homes, to make them remove the mobile home.

"We contend that the placement of her mobile home on her lot is a violation of the bylaws," board attorney Elliott Dunn said.

Jim Rice, general manager for Karsten Gallery of Homes, said this is the first time in 25 years his company has ever experienced something like this. Karsten is countersuing Betmar Acres, and demanding the association pay for Okke's legal bills. He said the Okke's home is significantly more valuable than most of the mobile homes surrounding her.

"From the first meeting we had, we felt it was just foolish," Rice said. "It just doesn't make any sense. It was never lived in and never titled. Under Florida law, that's defined as new."

The case went to mediation in October. Okke said the mediator recommended she apply for another variance, which she did. The board held a special meeting on Oct. 9 to consider Okke's request. She said she was told that she could not bring any other residents to speak on her behalf, so she asked Rice to accompany her. She was escorted into the community center by one of Betmar Acres' volunteer security guards.

Rice said board members took turns grilling Okke. "The only way to describe it would be bullying," he said.

They were escorted out of the room before the board held any discussion or vote on the matter. Okke was informed later in writing that her request had been denied.

According to the minutes, the board voted 6-1 to deny Okke's request. The document does not indicate who cast the dissenting vote.

Gus Clark, president of the homeowners association, would not answer a reporter's questions. "You're not getting anything out of me," he said.

Association Chairman Harry Taylor could not be reached for comment.

Barred From Entering

The minutes describe the hearing as a "special closed meeting," but Florida law prohibits homeowners association boards from holding closed meetings unless members are discussing litigation with the board attorney. Dunn did not attend the meeting.

Residents Bill LaForest and Edward Lanesky say they were not allowed to enter the room. They are two of the more than 300 residents who have signed a petition supporting Okke.

LaForest, a former board member, said the community's deed restrictions were never changed to include the 12-month rule. Amending the deed restrictions would take a two-thirds majority vote by the residents, he said.

Dunn said the association's bylaws and community deed restrictions are among several governing documents for the neighborhood. He couldn't say if one carries more weight than the other.

"The court will have to decide that," he said.

The case heads to court on Jan. 22. Rice said he hopes the two sides will settle.

"We're trying to make a customer happy and assist her," Rice said. "We tried to go every route we could without taking it to court. We don't want the residents to have to pay legal fees."