Paradise lost? Communities secede from Fountains Country Club near Lake Worth Beach

Article Courtesy of  The Palm Beach Post

By Alexandra Clough

Published January 18, 2022


A civil war between residents at the Fountains Country Club has led three condominium complexes to secede from the community.

It's the latest conflict involving residents of this sprawling suburban Lake Worth enclave, which for years has been beset with lawsuits and arguments about management of the community.

As with any other war, skirmishes could have led to big losses.

In the case of the rebel Fountain residents, it was automatic access to guard gates.

Residents were warned late last year they would lose automatic gate access to the Fountains on Jan. 6 if they didn't pay into the security services provided by an in-house management body.

A week before the deadline, residents and the management company struck a temporary deal so the residents' vehicle bar codes still would be active. This continued to allow residents to enter the residents' gates, instead of having to wait in line at a guest gate.

But the bad feelings linger.

"We were scared into a deal because they threatened access to our own homes," said Susan Shea, a seceding Fountains resident.

Ben Geller, a retired dentist and Fountains resident who leads the community's in-house management company, said he's working hard to heal the divisions.

"It's become my crusade to bring this community together," Geller said.


Microcosm of country club issues that have dogged communities across Florida

The Fountains Country Club represents a microcosm of issues that in recent years have dogged country clubs throughout the county and the state.

A new resort-style pool built by Concert Golf at the Fountains Country Club in suburban Lake Worth.

These issues include mandatory club membership in residential communities, aging club members who no longer play golf, and the development of golf courses into residences.

But at least one statewide expert in homeowner association law said it's exceedingly rare for individual housing communities to outright leave the larger community.

"I'm trying to think of my dealings with bigger associations, and I can't recall any situation of this kind. It's unusual," said Lynette Whitehurst, an Orlando-based attorney specializing in homeowner and condominium owner associations.

The pandemic has further complicated the Fountains' future.

Demand for in-fill housing on golf courses is greater than ever as residents moving to Florida from crowded, urban areas seek in-town communities with amenities, such as golf or tennis.

At the Fountains, one of three golf courses is being sold off in pieces to developers who plan for-sale townhouses and rental apartments.

The new homes will be pounced on by homebuyers eager to live in Palm Beach County, real estate agents said.

"Anything new is going to have sizzle and appeal," said Ben G. Schachter, president of The Signature Real Estate Companies in Boca Raton. "We have a drastic housing supply shortage right now, and most homeowners are attracted to new communities."

But not everyone at the Fountains gains from the new residential communities.

These new communities are being built near some existing Fountains condominiums, in some cases eliminating residents' longtime views of golf greens.
Three Fountains condo communities seceded, hire their own management company

The Fountains is an 865-acre development first built in the 1970s.

The community features 19 individual residential communities and 1,763 homes. Residences include single-family homes, villas, townhouses and condominiums. The property is on the west side of Jog Road, bordered by Lake Worth Road on the north and Lantana Road on the south.

One umbrella entity, the Fountains Condominium Operations, serves as a master in-house manager of all the individual communities. The FCO collects residents' money and handles essential services for the communities. This includes security, roads and guard gates.

But three condo communities, Gefion Court, D’Este Court and Tivoli Court, seceded from the FCO at year-end. They hired their own property management company.

A major reason behind the decision was the need to have professional property management services and not just the administrative services provided by the FCO, said Yelena Sennett, president of the Tivoli condominium association.

Sennett said condo buildings need constant supervision and maintenance of air conditioner and plumbing systems, as well as elevators. Bids for concrete restoration also need to be done. The FCO didn't provide these needed services, she said.

Residents also wanted to see online, up-to-date documentation regarding expenses, said Howard Maier, a resident of the Tivoli Court condominium.

As the year-end date for secession neared, the three communities and the FCO came to an impasse on FCO's management of security.

The seceding residents wanted access to FCO's books going forward to ensure they were paying "their fair share" once they hired their own property management firm, said Susan Shea, a resident of the Gefion Court condominium in the Fountains.

"We will gladly pay something toward security, but we want to know what the actual charges are, and not what they tell us," Shea said.

But the communities and the FCO could not come to terms by year-end, culminating in the Dec. 14 letter sent by Geller.

Geller wrote that all residents needed to pay the FCO for its continued security services.

If they didn't, starting Jan. 6, all bar codes on residents' vehicles who live in Gefion Court, D’Este Court and Tivoli Court and are not country club members would be deactivated, Geller wrote.

Residents would have to use the guest lane to get into the community.

"We understand this will create a burden for all of us but we cannot provide full security benefits to those who are not contributing towards the cost," Geller wrote.

In addition, Geller said Fountains Security would not respond to any calls that come in from any of these three communities' residents. For instance, if someone fell and needed help getting up, they would need to call 911.

"As you can imagine, the list goes on and on," Geller wrote.

Resistgate? Rebel residents considered clogging residents entry gate

Some residents in the affected condos had planned to engage in non-violent protests if they couldn't get into their community.

Shea, for one, said she had planned to use the resident-only gate to enter the Fountains. If her bar code wouldn't work, she planned to just keep her car in the entrance lane, even if it meant backing up traffic.

"My thought was, if my bar code cuts off, I'm not moving," Shea said. "I'm a resident, and I'm coming into a residential gate."

Leaders of the three condos struck a last-minute deal on Dec. 29 with the FCO to maintain gate access and security. They agreed to pay $60 per residential unit. Details still are being ironed out.

Sennett said she's hopeful that any differences can be resolved.

A North versus South fight over club membership

Nearly 10 years ago, the Fountains was one of a number of clubs in Palm Beach County that fell into financial trouble.

Some members no longer wanted to pay club dues due to money issues. Other older residents who could no longer play golf or enjoy social amenities also wanted to stop paying dues.

For a time, membership in the Fountains Country Club was required for all 19 communities. This arrangement ensures a steady stream of cash flow to the club, proponents say.

But then seven associations in the northern section of the community wanted out of mandatory membership, and litigation followed.

When a Palm Beach County Circuit Court ruled in their favor, the Fountains became a community divided.

Even as the country club launched an unsuccessful appeal of this legal ruling, the club also filed dozens of lawsuits against members, demanding they pay club fees. This created a rift that split residents and caused hard feelings.

In 2018, tensions over the club settled down when residents voted to end mandatory membership in the community.

Residents also voted to sell the country club to a professional golf club operator, Concert Golf Partners of Newport Beach, Calif.

Today, Concert runs the club and its amenities. The company also just built an updated pool for the club, said Peter Nanula, Concert Golf's chief executive.

But Concert also is redeveloping one of the community's three golf courses, the north course. That course is where the seceding communities of Gefion Court, D’Este Court and Tivoli Court are located.

Various developers who bought parcels from Concert Golf are prepping the golf course land for construction, but building has been slow. Many residents now are faced with piles of dirt instead of verdant greens as views.

As part of the construction, a security fence also was removed on the community's exterior, allowing outsiders in without restraint, Shea said.

Sennett said she's been assured by Concert Golf that the fence will be restored.

Some residents in the seceding communities say they feel ignored or disrespected. Of the 19 communities, 10 presidents represent 509 residents in enclaves mostly on the south side of The Fountains. The south side is where the country club is located and where many club members live.

Meanwhile, nine presidents represent 1,265 residents, mostly in the north side of the community. "So whenever there is a vote, the 10 presidents for 509 people all are country club members," Shea said.

And it is residents in the north who have had to contend with construction noise, dirt and the loss of their golf course views, even as they paid the same amount to the FCO as residents in the south who still have their views and no construction issues.

Geller noted that secession doesn't mean the residents have "picked up the buildings and moved them." They still remain in the community, he said.

Sennett agreed and said she hopes that talks "can restore the trust and see if could work together for a longer term, amicable agreement."

Spencer Sax, a Boca Raton lawyer who specializes in homeowner and condominium association litigation, said he has seen a few other communities where some individual housing communities secede.

The move takes place when the departing communities think their interests don't align with the majority of the community. "It's not frequent, but it does occur," Sax said.

But over time, the communities all "find a way to co-exist," Sax said.