The battle at Bridgewater


Article Courtesy of The Tampa Tribune


Published November 22, 2009

WESLEY CHAPEL - As he tries to rehabilitate his struggling neighborhood, Mark Spector, president of the Bridgewater homeowners association, has taken a "zero tolerance" approach toward people who break his community's rules.

In recent months, Spector has sent out hundreds of notices about uncut grass, unkempt driveways and poorly maintained property. In keeping with the community's rules, he recently began demanding investors pay a one-time $500 fee to rent their houses. Investors also have to pay fees to vet potential tenants, who must win HOA approval to live in the community.

Spector says those steps are needed to turn around a community that began with high expectations in 2004 but rapidly fell into disarray when the housing bubble burst. Investors say Spector essentially has declared war on Bridgewater's renters.

"He's created a divide in the community," said Kattie Horn, a Lutz resident and Realtor who bought two foreclosed houses last year as investments.

Critics say Spector acted irresponsibly when he took direct control over the community's day-to-day operation this year. They also say Spector hasn't accounted for thousands of dollars missing from the balance sheet after the HOA fired its last management company.

Spector denies any wrongdoing. On Friday, a public relations officer for the HOA offered to provide the books for review.

Horn has knit together a group of Bridgewater investors opposed to Spector's strictures. They're demanding the HOA hold an election. They want Spector and his lieutenants out.

"The only option we have is to get new board members to protect our investments," said Michelle Schrier of Tampa, who owns two houses in Bridgewater.

The tension between the HOA board and property owners boiled over Wednesday at the association's monthly meeting.

Those who attended the meeting say it erupted in shouting after Spector declined to hear out those who came to speak. Spector said he ended the meeting when the group became disruptive.

"They're basically upset," Spector said. "Once we started enforcing the covenants, they woke up."

Miami-based Lennar Corp. built Bridgewater at the peak of the mid-decade housing bubble, promising buyers the community would be 90 percent owner-occupied.

By the time Lennar left Bridgewater in 2007, the community was nearly two-thirds investor-owned. Things went downhill rapidly when the housing bubble burst, leaving Bridgewater riddled with empty houses.

Spector's cleanup efforts have focused largely on investor-owned houses, which now make up about half of Bridgewater's 760 properties.

Absentee landlords have wracked up nearly $300,000 in unpaid dues and bills for maintenance, Spector said. Owner-occupants collectively owe about $130,000, he said.

The HOA has placed liens against delinquent properties and ordered some owners to bring their properties in line with the community's standards.

Earlier this year, the HOA took the unusual step of hiring a Tampa public relations firm to bolster Bridgewater's image and attract new homeowners. A festival Nov. 14 drew about 2,000 visitors, said Jack Glasure, vice president of French West Vaughn. Critics say hiring Glasure's company is a waste of money.

"Bridgewater is no different from any community that was built at the height of the bubble," Horn said. "It has to go through all the suffering."

Spector said he and his fellow board members have received death threats. He said one board member has been the victim of character assassination by outraged property owners.

"Almost every member of that group has had legal action against them," Spector said. "They're grasping at straws and saying there are improprieties where there are not."

Spector, who has property management experience and a full-time job in St. Petersburg, said taking direct control of the day-to-day HOA operations was the best way to ensure the necessary changes happened. The HOA has hired and fired three management companies in the past three years over how best to turn the neighborhood around.

As for investors' biggest accusation against him - the alleged mismanagement of $100,000 of association funds - Spector said that claim also isn't accurate. The funds are in the association's bank account, he said, but problems with the previous management company have made a formal audit of the 2008 finances impossible.

"It's all traceable. It's all documented," he said.

And that election investors want? It's coming, Spector said.

The date hasn't been set, however.

"We've been very busy," he said.