Heritage Isles wants state to swing gates its way

A change in law would make it easier for Florida gated communities to close streets.

COURTESY : St. Petersburg Times
Published January 15, 2005

HERITAGE ISLES - This is how Webster's New World Dictionary defines the word "gate": a movable framework or solid structure, especially one that swings on hinges, controlling entrance or exit.

Yet this definition doesn't apply to the so-called entrance gates at Heritage Isles. They may be movable, and they may swing, but because of complications with city and state law, the gates do not control entrance or exit. Anyone can get in.

For a community of 1,500 homes that bills itself as "privately gated," this is a big problem.

It's so big that homeowners and the developer, Lennar Corp., want the Legislature to change state law this year to make the gates do the one thing they haven't been able to do in six years: keep strangers out.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Ken Littlefield, R-Wesley Chapel, and Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, would allow gated communities to make city-owned roads private by getting 80 percent of a subdivision's homeowners to agree to it. Now, the law allows closing city roads to the public only if all homeowners agree - an electoral prerequisite that even most banana republics would find daunting.

If the bill becomes law, it would ease a long-simmering dispute between Lennar and the homeowners who bought Heritage Isles homes believing the subdivision was a gated community. It would also make it easier for gated communities across Florida to close their streets to the public.

When Heritage Isles was annexed into Tampa in 1998, its roads had been built with tax-free municipal bonds, making them public. The agreement between the city and the developer at the time, U.S. Homes, duplicated the language in the project's agreement with Hillsborough County: The roads in the subdivision would remain open to the public.

City and state laws prohibit the blocking of any public street. So when Lennar bought the project from U.S. Homes, it inherited a security system that couldn't keep the gates at Sandy Pointe and Grand Isle drives closed.

Lennar officials have long nurtured the impression that Heritage Isles is gated. Aside from the obvious gates, there are the numerous signs adorning Cross Creek Boulevard that tout the community as "private" and "gated." They even sold homeowners $25 remote clickers to open the gates - even though the gates opened anyway.

When city officials made unannounced visits, they saw that Lennar was violating Florida law by stopping cars and refusing to open the gates until drivers answered questions.

So the city intervened in 2002. Officials said Lennar couldn't build 433 more homes if it didn't agree to install a trigger that would automatically open an unmanned gate. The guard at the other gate couldn't stop cars from entering, forcing the gates to open as vehicles approached.

Lennar officials and homeowners said that defeated the purpose of the gates.

Despite one of the lowest crime rates in the city, many of the homeowners who live in Heritage Isles are obsessed with security. They spend $167,000 a year for gates and guards. Last year they hired New Tampa's first armed guard. At public meetings where vandalism is discussed, at least one homeowner inevitably blames Heritage Pines, a subsidized apartment complex across the road.

To feel safe, many feel it is imperative that the gates be closed to unexpected guests.

The way the law reads now, that would require every single homeowner to approve closing the streets and shifting control of the roads to the homeowners association, which is still controlled by Lennar. State law requires unanimous approval to close city streets. But county roads only require 80 percent approval, a discrepancy that Crist calls a "glitch" and should be remedied.

"The counties have the ability to keep or give away a road, for whatever reason," Crist said. "I'm willing to include the cities because they have roads, too."

There is one potential liability for homeowners if the bill is passed. When disaster strikes, as it did with last year's hurricanes, Heritage Isles would be ineligible for federal aid for its roads.

The subdivision is applying for about $8,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for damage that officials say the hurricanes caused. Tampa Palms is getting about $20,000 in FEMA aid for debris removal from Amberly Drive, a public road.

Once roads become private, FEMA can't spend federal money on those roads, said Butch DuCote, a spokesman for the agency.

"The way legislation is written right now, it forbids us from removing debris on private property," DuCote said.

During the cleanup from the hurricanes, the Department of Community Affairs fielded dozens of complaints from private communities across Florida that weren't eligible for public aid.

"If the road gets washed out, the repair of the road will be left to the people who live there," said James Mosteller, DCA's director of legislative affairs. "It's a huge deal and it costs a lot of money. On the upside, for those who don't want anyone driving on their roads, I guess it's a nice thing."