Judge halts Wellen Park water deal

Article Courtesy of  The West Villages Sun

By Craig Garrett

Published February 15, 2023


WELLEN PARK — A Wellen Park homeowner group has won the first round in a civil dispute over a 100-year irrigation water contract reportedly valued in the billions of dollars. That group, the Gran Paradiso Homeowners Association, asked a Sarasota County judge to void an irrigation deal between that association and the West Villages Improvement District and Lennar Homes, according to documents filed in Sarasota County’s 12th Circuit Court. The West Villages Improvement District governs Wellen Park, some 12,500 acres at North Port’s western border. At buildout, it will encompass 20,000 homes and 50,000 people, according to estimates.


The district’s board represents its many builders, including Miami-based Lennar. One seat is reserved for a homeowner representative, currently held by John Meisel. Meisel is listed as a plaintiff in the irrigation dispute. He is also a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit to remove the Wellen Park communities from within North Port’s boundaries. That de-annexation litigation is unresolved. The irrigation dispute dates to 2018, when Lennar Homes and West Villages Improvement District struck a deal to provide reclaimed water to Gran Paradiso, the largest in Wellen Park’s several communities. That pact created three cost tiers for water purchased from North Port, Sarasota County and the Englewood Water District, or is collected as stormwater. That blend of irrigation water is stored in ponds and gets pumped to the villages for lawns and landscaping. Oversight of usage in the region is overseen by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The Gran Paradiso group insisted the deal greatly favored the WVID and Wellen Park’s master builder, Mattamy Homes. What was 37 cents per thousand gallons before the 2018 deal became 73 cents per 1,000 gallons with the new rate and was, its detractors said, “patently unfair and unreasonable,” according to the civil suit.


The issue only came to light after the Gran Paradiso Homeowners Association took control from Lennar, according to litigants. The homeowner group also asserted the new rates each year would climb 5.5%, or the consumer price index rate, whichever was higher, according to those with the Gran Paradiso group.

John Meisel


The 100-year deal also violated state rules for providing a public notice of the intent to adopt the new rates, or five days instead of the required seven, according to Meisel, who said the revised rates would return billions in revenue over the 100 years. That figure was in dispute, however, as costs for keeping the infrastructure safe and operating would moderate profits, according to several sources with the WVID. After two days of arguments this week before Circuit Judge Hunter S. Carroll, he granted relief to the homeowner group — meaning the existing irrigation rate structure would temporarily freeze. That gives the sides time to strike a new deal, or force the matter back to court. Carroll’s ruling also prohibits the WVID from turning off the irrigation spigot at Gran Paradiso, as the homeowners association in November had paid the lower fees for its final quarter of services in 2022, thereby prompting a threat from the district. The association, according to Meisel, who is an elected member on its seven-person board, had deposited some $14,000 at the 37-cent rate versus the $55,000 billed. The difference, he said, was placed in escrow pending Carroll’s ruling.


The Gran Paradiso homeowner group would likely seek the difference between rates in a refund, plus attorney fees, if a compromise wasn’t reached. The WVID convened a closed session at its Friday meeting with its lawyers to decide on its next moves. Meisel removed himself from that hearing at North Port’s new public safety building in Wellen Park. John Luczynski, the WVID’s chair, said only it was “too soon” to comment on the matter at Friday’s hearing. The WVID board next meets March 9. But a decision on the civil dispute will be published online if things changed before that time, Luczynski said.