Lake Charlene flood project could move forward after HOA president signs county easement terms

Article Courtesy of  The Pensacola News Journal

By Jim Little

Published April 10, 2019


The Lake Charlene Homeowners Association signed Escambia County's easement terms Friday, which will allow the county to begin a $2.1 million project funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency designed to reduce flooding in the neighborhood.

Lake Charlene HOA President Bernie Vanosdall confirmed to the News Journal that he had signed the county's easement terms Friday afternoon.

The agreement came after residents of the Lake Charlene neighborhood showed up at the Escambia County Commission Thursday night and voiced frustrations with how their homeowners' association has handled an easement offer for a county flood control project.

Vanosdall said the first easement the HOA offered had terms allowing the county to access the HOA's private land to do the project, but County Attorney Alison Rogers recommended the county not accept the terms.

"I have worked with our board of directors and the homeowners association at large, and we have been trying to get it done as a part of a bigger plan," Vanosdall said. "But not doing it all would probably hurt some people."

Although Vanosdall signed the documents, the HOA rules still require a 90-day notice and two-thirds of the HOA membership will need to approve it.

Commissioner Doug Underhill said Thursday if the project were to go out for bid today, the county would still need to ask FEMA for an extension on its funding because it can't meet the March 2020 deadline for completion.

Underhill told the News Journal he expects the county to begin the process of bidding the project for construction and to ask for an extension from FEMA.

The project had stalled because the county needs access to a 0.11-acre piece of land controlled by the HOA to replace the flood gate that controls the level of the lake with a weir that will lower the lake by 9 inches.

At an HOA meeting on March 25, the HOA board voted to offer the county an easement, and the HOA sent in an easement offer with several conditions the county would have to follow, which the county's attorney advised against accepting.

However, out of the at least 12 Lake Charlene residents who spoke to the commission Thursday night, 10 said they felt lied to and "duped" by their own HOA board because its easement offer included conditions not discussed at the March 25 meeting.

"On March 25, it was standing-room only," Rita Grayson, a Lake Charlene resident whose home flooded in 2014, told the commission. "And after over two hours of discussion, at its conclusion, the transcript from that portion of the meeting from Mr. Vanosdall said, 'I make a motion that we the board of Lake Charlene approve an easement for the county to move forward to commence the FEMA project. It is the motion to approve an easement, no conditions, that they move forward.'"

Grayson said the board vote was 3-1 with Vanosdall abstaining.

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"We have been lied to and betrayed for five years by the homeowners association board members," said Susan Littlefield, a Lake Charlene resident. "We were told by the HOA board members that they would do what was necessary to get the FEMA-granted project started on time."

Lake Charlene resident Jackie Selby said she had lost confidence in the HOA board and said at the meeting she asked specifically about the easement before the vote.

"I even asked, does this mean the county (easement), you're talking about the county (easement) template," Selby said. "'Yes.' And then to come to find out that this very board who lied and right in front of us knew exactly what they were going to do."

The two Lake Charlene residents who didn't share those views were Vanosdall and HOA board member Dean Kirschner.

Kirschnerwas the first Lake Charlene resident to speak and didn't discuss the March 25 meeting. But he said the HOA has been trying to work with the county.

"We're not going to get everything we want," Kirschner said. "You're not going to get everything you want, but this is just to blatantly tell us we're not doing anything is ridiculous."

Kirschner was a staff aide to former Commissioner Gene Valentino, who Underhill unseated in the 2014 election.

Vanosdall spoke after most of the other residents but did not directly respond to their accusations and instead read from what appeared to be prepared remarks saying the county need a comprehensive storm water pond.

Vanosdall later told the News Journal on Friday, he believed the terms in the original offer were the terms needed to get the project done, but agreed Friday to sign the county's terms because he wants the project done.

"I have a hard time trusting the county because I read what they wrote in the past," Vanosdall said. "And I see what they've done since then, and they don't do what they say."

During the Thursday night meeting, Underhill pointed out that the Lake Charlene project was part of a larger comprehensive plan to address flooding in the Warrington drainage basin.

After all the speakers, Commissioner Steven Barry asked Underhill why the item had been added to the county's agenda with no easement to vote on, and Underhill replied that it was essentially to hear from the residents.

"I appreciate all the comments, but I don't really see any action on the board's behalf tonight," Barry said. "If they sign the easement, then it moves forward."