|Combatants raise stakes in suburb wars|
Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post
Monday, December 26, 2005
An ideological battle is brewing behind the gates of South Florida's planned suburban communities.
One side accuses the other of fostering dictatorship, while the other counters that its foe advocates anarchy. The conflict is as old as politics itself. The combatants are a more recent breed: homeowners and the boards of their associations.
This year, a new organization entered the fray. The Coalition of Community Associations wants to unite community leaders across the state against a consumer rights group, Cyber Citizens for Justice, that has worked to limit the power of homeowners boards and their attorneys.
Few fights are as contentious or as tedious as those waged over community association law. As rising property values spur the construction of more cookie-cutter subdivisions, the boards that govern those neighborhoods gain power.
At the same time, residents run afoul of those boards. They put up banned flagpoles on their front lawns, such as that of a Jupiter man who made national news when his neighborhood fined him for the patriotic display. They miss dues payments and wind up with foreclosure notices.
The ensuing fights pit the rights of the individual to do with his property as he pleases against the rights of the group to govern itself with a set of rules, however arbitrary, enforced by the homeowners board.
For the past five years, Cyber Citizens has chronicled these disputes on its Web site, www.ccfj.net. Founder Jan Bergemann has successfully lobbied Tallahassee for changes in homeowners law, including the appointment of an ombudsman to oversee disputes.
COCA founders envision their group as an antagonist to Bergemann.
"It was formed to respond to some of the dangerous and erroneous assumptions this man promulgates," COCA spokesman Mort Mazor said. "Looking at that site is like looking at the National Enquirer. We felt it was time for the good guys to step up."
Mazor also is vice president of the Alliance of Delray Residential Associations, which represents 58 communities west of Delray Beach. The alliance and the two other big umbrella groups of community associations in south county, the Coalition of Boynton West Residential Associations and the West Boca Community Council, were instrumental in forming the new organization, founder Richard Spears said.
"The south county groups are right at the heart of COCA," said Spears, a member of the state ethics commission from Orlando. "I don't know how effective we would be without them."
For now, COCA has no treasury or formal rules. It does not charge dues. Its board members have no titles. It has not filed incorporation papers with the state. It has no expenses. Members who happen to be lawyers assist with legal questions for free. When the board members meet, they go to a restaurant and take turns picking up the check.
The group will write legislation and review bills that affect homeowners associations, Spears said. Each member group will lobby its county's legislative delegation to support COCA's position. And he has set up a Web site (www.cocafl.org), paying for it himself, to counter Cyber Citizens'.
"We've agreed to work on common issues," Spears said. "If you don't agree with our position, you're not obligated to support it."
COCA represents about 3 million homeowners who live in the thousands of communities that send representatives to the umbrella groups that support COCA, Spears said. Bergemann said many of those homeowners belong to his organization, which has 300 paying members representing roughly 3,000 people.
COCA plans to focus on two issues, insurance and homeowners association law, in the upcoming legislative session. Two bills seek to change the laws that deal with mediating homeowners association disputes, and COCA and Cyber Citizens already have taken sides.
The changes would allow more people to become mediators, saving time and money in resolving disputes, Spears said. Cyber Citizens for Justice disagreed, saying the proposed changes would give more money to attorneys.
"There are two sides," Bergemann said. "You are either for the owners, and you look out for the welfare of the owners, or you are for the welfare of the professionals. The professionals want to make as much money as possible with as little service as possible."
Although COCA purports to represent the homeowners, it has the same goals as the attorneys who work for the associations, Bergemann said.
"They're using these umbrella organizations that are not elected," Bergemann said. "They don't have a following. These people don't even know who they are."
COCA leaders call Bergemann's group a small band of dissidents that protects deadbeats who don't want to follow association rules. They say his Web site sensationalizes isolated incidents of disputes, making it appear as if every homeowners board in the state has gone rogue.
"I don't like rules, and I don't like regulations, but we put up with them so we may live in peace with our neighbors," Spears said. "These people are like the guy whose wife won't give him a divorce, so he goes to court to outlaw marriage."
Bergemann said he has nothing against homeowners associations. He just wants to limit their power to pass arbitrary assessments of thousands of dollars to pay attorneys' fees.
"We don't protect deadbeats," he said. "As a homeowner, I want some say in how they use my money."
JUST LOOK AT THE LIST OF COCA FOUNDERS:
ANY MORE QUESTIONS WHERE THIS "ORGANIZATION" IS COMING FROM?
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