Residents, supervisors look for way to avoid court in sinkhole saga

COURTESY : Daily Commercial
By Megan Shannon
Published January 3, 2006


THE VILLAGES - District 4 supervisors hope to transfer some sinkhole repair costs to the developer without entering the courtroom.

Some Villages residents, though, are pessimistic, saying officials with The Villages of Lake Sumter Inc. will not want to set a precedent that could cost a hefty sum of money.

In 2000, Community Development District 4 supervisors signed an agreement with the development company which charges residents of that district with the creation, construction and maintenance of retention ponds.

Rich Lambrecht, District 4 chairman, said there have been two sinkholes per year since 2002 and three in 2005. District 4 has 24 ponds, which Lambrecht said increases the likelihood of sinkholes.

“We are saddled with an onerous easement agreement that has a very big liability,” he said. “It’s too big for the residents to just roll over on.”

Lambrecht said the water in the retention ponds is used to irrigate the golf courses, which requires the construction of a wet pond — a larger, more expensive pond that Lambrecht said is more likely to develop a sinkhole.

In a letter sent to The Villages of Lake Sumter Inc. three months ago, district representatives wrote that because the developer makes money from the golf courses and the homes are worth more money when overlooking a retention pond, that some of the financial responsibility should be on the developer’s shoulders.

According to Lambrecht, Villages representatives replied that 10.7 percent of the water that drains into the pond on the Nancy Lopez golf course is developer-owned. The district was paid 10.7 percent of the cost of repairing the two sinkholes on that course — about $20,000. The residents paid the other $145,000.

The third sinkhole was on the resident-owned Executive Golf Course, and the cost of repairing it — about $216,000 — was split evenly between District 4, the district’s water treatment plant and the Villages Center Community Development District. The VCCDD collects fees from residents in all of The Villages to fund amenities.

District supervisors gave Lambrecht permission last week to research more options for the district. He has also asked St. Johns River Water Management District what can be done to terminate the current agreement. He said he will have more information for the board at the end of the month.

“I believe one way or another we will be able to mitigate the agreement,” he said.

Attorney Jimmy Crawford told District 4 supervisors there is no way to get around the agreement, which in his opinion is legally sound. Lambrecht is looking for a second opinion.

“I think there are other legal opinions that will say the agreement is one-sided,” he said. “I am trying to find other avenues. I don’t want to rush into court.”

Property Owners Association President Joe Gorman said the district may just be “running in place” instead of making progress.

“The developer can dig his heels in on this because it could set precedent,” he said. “There are a lot of sinkholes popping up.”

Gorman said even if the district filed suit against the developer that still would not mean an easy victory.

“A lawsuit would mean diddly against the big pockets of the developer,” he said.

Gorman said on the surface of the agreement it is valid but agreed with Lambrecht that a deeper look could reveal an “unbalanced transaction.”

“A judge could rule the contract invalid once they see how unbalanced the contract is in terms of the residents,” Gorman said.

Calls made Monday to The Villages of Lake-Sumter Inc. were not returned.