Appellate court rules for Gran Paradiso residents in North Port irrigation fee lawsuit

Article Courtesy of  The Sarasota Herald-Tribune
By Earle Kimel

Published January 5, 2023


NORTH PORT – A state appellate court sided with Gran Paradiso Property Owners in their suit against the West Villages Improvement District over a 100-year contract for irrigation water that the residents say is both too long and too high.

A three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal heard arguments on Dec. 5 and issued a unanimous affirmation eight days later of a verbal ruling by 12th Judicial Circuit Judge Hunter W. Carroll for a temporary injunction against the West Villages Improvement District using a rate schedule outlined in a 2018 agreement with Gran Paradiso.

In his ruling last Feb. 9, Carroll called one aspect of the district's irrigation contract "obscene."

Since then any money homeowners paid for irrigation water exceeding $0.39 per 1,000 gallons per customer should have been going into an escrow account while a lawsuit over the dispute proceeds.

“At the end of the day, we want what we always wanted: a fair product for a price that’s fair and reasonable," Steve Glunt, president of the Gran Paradiso Property Owners Association, told the Herald-Tribune.

What the development district's lawyer argued

Much of the 30 minutes of argument centered on whether residents were given proper notice to comment during a Sept. 13, 2018 public hearing where that rate structure was adopted.

The 2nd District Court of Appeals upheld a temporary injunction issued by 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Hunter W. Carroll that limited the rate for irrigation water it could collect from property owners in Gran Paradiso to $0.39 per 1,000 gallons, with fees in excess of that going to an escrow account.

West Villages Improvement District attorney Joseph Brown argued that the fact the overall meeting was properly noticed should have been enough and a more detailed notice of the public hearing was not required by state statute.

Joseph Hebert, the attorney for the Gran Paradiso property owners, disagreed.


A legal notice of the public hearing was published in the Herald-Tribune on Sept. 8, 2018 – but that was only five days prior to the hearing, instead of the legally required seven days.

In his summation, Brown argued that Carroll’s order was overly broad and should be overturned because it “disturbed the status quo.”

A widening rift between development district and residents

The West Villages district is a special government created by the state Legislature to charge fees to property owners in the district to build and maintain infrastructure, primarily on property once known as the Thomas Ranch.

Four of the five board members are appointed by the developer, while the fifth – currently Gran Paradiso resident John Meisel – is elected by residents.

The district includes both Wellen Park within the city of North Port, and Winchester Ranch, which is being developed on portions of the former ranch in unincorporated Sarasota County.

The rift between Gran Paradiso and the West Villages Improvement District has widened in recent months.

The two sides have been battling over the cost of Hurricane Ian cleanup – specifically reimbursement to the property owners of the cost to remove Hurricane Ian debris from Renaissance and Prestigo boulevards, as well as repair of the guardhouse owned by the West Villages district.

Special districts in Florida are initially controlled by the developer building the subdivision, but as homeowners buy in they eventually gain control.

The WVID is currently facing lawsuits over the method used to transition control of the five-member board to and a decision to levy an assessment on all property owners that use irrigation water to pay the district’s legal fees in the Gran Paradiso irrigation fee lawsuit.

The 2018 agreement, made between the West Villages Improvement District and the Gran Paradiso Property Owners Association while the government-like district was still controlled by Lennar Homes, set the latest rates at $0.66 cents per 1,000 for reclaimed water use. It also established a "well availability fee" and another charge for capital expenses.

Neither of those latter two fees were in a 2009 agreement, which was made before Lennar bought Gran Paradiso in 2014, and set the cost for irrigation water at $0.39 per every 1,000 gallons.

The issue erupted once Gran Paradiso refused to pay a $34,696 quarterly bill for July-September 2022 that was broken down as $28,113 for irrigation water; $19,937 as a well availability fee and a capital charge of $6,646.

Gran Paradiso proposed that it be allowed to pay the $0.39 per 1,000 gallons fee instead of the higher rate and additional fees until the dispute is resolved.

Carroll expressed concerns about the availability fee charged by the developer that he said offered no benefit to the residents. He likened the fee to an annuity for a subsidiary of the current master developer of the area, Mattamy Homes, now branded as Wellen Park.

Mattamy has rebranded the overall development Wellen Park.

In a section where Carroll stressed that it would be in the public’s interest to void the 2018 agreement, he said that “paying annuity to the primary developer’s subsidiary for up to 100 years for no reasonable to connection to what Mattamy is going to have to to do to provide that water is, again, obscene.”