Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times


Published September 16, 2007

SHADY HILLS - Storm clouds chased them out of the community pool one day this summer, so Matthew Willmar and his children headed back to their home at Quail Ridge. A car approached, and the driver rolled down his window.

"This was like something out of a movie," Willmar recalled. "He goes, 'You using my pool?'

"I was like, 'Um, I wasn't in your pool. I was by your pool.'

"He said, 'You think that's right? You're not allowed in my pool.'"

The driver was George Nicholas, and the Willmars are one of 30 families who stopped paying their quarterly $115 amenities fees in protest after they learned that the pool and tennis courts are owned not by the homeowners association but by a private company headed by Nicholas - a developer who also happens to be their neighbor.

Possession can be a divisive thing, which explains the encounter and also how the following item ended up in a recent community newsletter:

"We continue to fight the battle of non-members attempting to utilize our facilities. ... Security cameras have been installed. Vandals will be prosecuted."

"Non-members," in this case, include neighbors.

What each side says

More than half of the families in the estates section of Quail Ridge do pay their amenities fees. The cost of the fees was not changed. So why does it matter to the other half exactly who owns the pool and tennis courts? Willmar and others say that it means:

1. They don't have control over the operation of those amenities.

2. Their homes could be worth less money if they ever decide to sell, because a community-owned pool carries more value than a privately owned one.

"I don't have what I thought I had," said resident Cheryl Hanik.

County records show that the pool belongs to Nicholas' company, Suncoast Golf Inc., which also owns the 18-hole golf course and tennis courts at Quail Ridge, located near Shady Hills Road and State Road 52.

Nicholas bought a tract of raw land in the partially developed Quail Ridge, which already had about 52 villas, in 2004. The next year he sold nearly 60 lots on that land to builder Ryland Homes.

But before Ryland would buy any parcels, Nicholas said in an interview, the builder insisted he also buy the amenities, which at that time were in poor condition. Ryland's reasoning, he said, was that it wanted to ensure future residents of the roughly 60 new homes had a well-maintained golf course and pool.

In January 2005, Suncoast Golf and a representative of Quail Ridge Estates Homeowners Association signed an agreement outlining how Nicholas owned - and controlled - the amenities.

He says he sunk nearly $80,000 into rebuilding the pool, and the user fees are supposed to help him recover that investment. But he said with about 30 of the 61 single-family homes no longer paying, that hasn't been the case.

"I live here, too, and I wanted to see it maintained," said Nicholas, who added that it would be unfair to paying residents if he let the nonpaying ones use the amenities. "Their beef is they want something for free."

Not so, say the residents who quit paying those amenities fees, which are separate from their roughly $250 quarterly homeowners association dues. They say Ryland never made the ownership arrangements clear to them when they were buying their homes.

In its brochures, Ryland listed "community clubhouse with pool, tennis courts and golf passes" as one of Quail Ridge's features. Homeowners fees, according to one brochure, included community pool plus three rounds of golf.

In their conversations with sales reps, these residents say, the fact that Suncoast actually owned the clubhouse, pool and tennis courts never came up.

"We feel like we were misled, misinformed," said Willmar.

Ryland spokeswoman Marya Barlow, who is based in California, said the closing documents included copies of county records that showed who owned the amenities. By fax, she provided the documents that Ryland says each home buyer saw before closing.

"We feel it was clearly set forth in the documentation," she said.

About 10 residents who gathered at Hanik's home one recent evening said they never saw such documents until after they'd purchased their homes. Once they started talking to each other at a block party last year, some residents started researching.

"If that had been in there, I would've noticed," said Hanik, who checked her personal files and said she could not find such documents.

Land is in dispute, too

The who-owns-what theme at Quail Ridge is also continuing in court - not over the pool but over an undeveloped 2.17 acres fronting State Road 52.

According to the original plat for the subdivision, the property was to be retained by the developer - at that time, Quail Ridge Trust No. 1 - or its "successors or assignors."

But starting in August 2004, a confusing blur of deals gave the land first to Quail Ridge's "master association," then ultimately to Nicholas' Suncoast Commercial.

The land could come in handy to whomever owns it. This section of State Road 52 is slated to one day be widened, and the state Department of Transportation has said it will begin setting aside money next year to buy rights of way.

The homeowners association sued Nicholas' companies, saying in a Sept. 6 complaint that the master association never voted to give away the land once it got it in 2004. Nicholas' lawyer, Roland Waller, said in an interview that the association ended up with the property only because of a goof-up it got lumped in with some other transactions and that the land still rightfully belongs to Nicholas, who was given all the rights of the original developers.

At any rate, this will be a tug of war decided in court. Back at Quail Ridge, resolution over the other issues doesn't come so easy.

Some of the residents say they still feel taken, though they may begin making other arrangements. Said Hanik: "I"ll go to the Y."

Nicholas, for his part, continues to send them overdue notices, but says he's trying to move on and find other projects to help pay for maintenance of the amenities. "In the final analysis, nothing will change," he said. "We're still neighbors."