Homeowner group fights resident over mowing

Article Courtesy of The Tampa Tribune

By Mike Salinero

Published January 27, 2015

 TAMPA — If you mow the lawn for an older neighbor or a sick relative, that’s called a good deed.

But what’s it called when someone forces you to mow, edge and maintain land you don’t own?

Paula Walz calls it unfair, and perhaps illegal.

Walz lives in one of the 800 homes that make up the Sterling Ranch subdivision in Brandon. She is among 238 homeowners whose property abuts one of the community’s five retention ponds.


For years, Walz and other homeowners have maintained the grass and trees between their rear property lines and the ponds’ high-water marks. They were told this maintenance of so-called “common interest areas” was mandatory as spelled out in the community’s Master Declaration — sort of a constitution for homeowners associations.

But Walz grew angry about the unpaid labor, especially as she got older. The pond’s steep bank is hard to mow and Walz, 62, said she once fell off a ladder trimming a tree.


“I’m not a young chicken anymore,” she said. “When you get a little older, it takes it out of you.”


For a year and a half, Walz fought the association board over a policy she describes as “forced labor.”

She sat through monthly board meetings, seeking answers but getting only blank looks and equivocations. She wrote certified letters to the board and its attorney and received no response.

She finally heard back from the attorney after she quit mowing and complained to Hillsborough County code enforcement that the common area behind her home was overgrown. Code enforcement sided with her.

New Sterling Ranch board member Doug Sprigg, the only director who could be reached for comment, acknowledged that the policy on common areas is a problem that needs to be resolved.

Walz’s campaign against her homeowners association is a story repeated again and again across Florida.

The problem is so widespread that in 2013, the Florida Legislature passed a homeowners association reform bill, requiring all associations to register with the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The law also gives homeowners the right to see association documents, bars board membership to people with criminal pasts, prohibits officers from having a financial interest in certain bids, and enables the state to investigate association officers and managers.

Still, more needs to be done, said Jan Bergemann, who served on Gov. Jeb Bush’s homeowners association task force.

“The best law isn’t useful without enforcement,” he said. “If the law doesn’t have any teeth, an attorney can make $10,000 by disputing it.”

Walz and another Sterling Ranch homeowner, Randy Mitchell, first started questioning the homeowners association board about common areas in June 2013. The board said it would get an opinion from the association’s longtime attorney, Francis Friscia.

But hearing no response two months later, Walz wrote a certified letter to the association’s management company at the time, L.E. Wilson Management. She said she wanted the board to explain how the Master Declaration required homeowners to care for the common areas.

A month later, at a regular meeting, the board revealed the long-awaited legal opinion. It supported the homeowner maintenance requirement.

Walz asked for the opinion to be read but was denied on the grounds it was “attorney-client privilege.”

She didn’t give up.

“I asked for a year and a half and never got an answer to my certified letters,” she said. “I have been stonewalled, sidelined.”

So she quit mowing and filed the complaint Aug. 20 with Hillsborough County code enforcement.

According to county rec­ords, code enforcement cited the homeowners association for the overgrown grass.

County records show board attorney Friscia sent emails to code enforcement Sept. 2 and Sept. 9, saying association rules required residents living on the ponds — not the association — to mow the common areas. Code enforcement officer Jim Karr replied that association rules don’t matter; state law requires the county to cite the listed property owner — the homeowners association.

Friscia did not respond to phone calls from the Tribune. But in a Sept. 5 letter to Walz, he said deed restrictions for Sterling Ranch “Unit No. 3” required homeowners there to maintain “that area of land located between your rear property line and the water line” of the retention pond.

Unit 3 was a designation for the neighborhood where Walz lives. Each Sterling Ranch neighborhood was numbered in sequence as it opened in the 1980s and ’90s.

Walz wrote Friscia back rebutting his claims. She pointed out that Unit 3 was dissolved in 1997 along with all other units when a single homeowners association was created. Friscia wrote the documents that executed the change.

The covenants and restrictions attached to those individual units, Walz argued, were dissolved, too.

But Friscia also claimed the succeeding Master Declaration requires homeowners to mow the common areas.

Walz disagreed in her letter, citing wording in the declaration that says land “in conjunction” with a housing unit must be mowed. She supplied evidence that the common areas are separate parcels of land, not “in conjunction” with any homeowner’s.

“As you state in your correspondence … ‘the maintenance is supposed to be conducted by the owner of the lot,’” Walz wrote. “The Master Association owns the property in question.”

Still, Friscia warned Walz that if she didn’t mow the area behind her house, the association would do it and assess her. He said she would also be responsible for legal fees and court costs and face liens — even foreclosure — if she didn’t pay.

The association’s management company mowed the area after the code enforcement citation and assessed Walz. She refused to pay.

No further action was taken against her.

Instead, the homeowners association board hired an outside lawyer, Douglas Christy III, for a second opinion on who should maintain common areas, including a 3,300-foot-long wooden fence that was in disrepair. Christy said the responsibility lies with the association, according to accounts of board conversations by Walz and Mitchell. They were confirmed by board member Sprigg.

Christy told a reporter he could not comment because of attorney-client privilege.

Bergemann, the advocate of statewide homeowner association reform, said he agrees with Christy’s opinion. Common interest areas, by definition, are owned by the community and are the responsibility of the homeowners association.

“On the plat map it will tell you this is private, this is utility easement and this is common interest,” Bergemann said. “And the common interest property is the responsibility of the homeowners association.

The only exception, Bergemann said, is if deed restrictions say homeowners on retention ponds have to take care of the common interest property behind their lots.

“But I doubt that because otherwise the second lawyer (Christy) would not have given that opinion,” Bergemann said.

Bergemann has heard before of a homeowners association, to save money, making community residents pay for maintenance of common property. In some golf course communities, for example, boards have required homeowners whose property abuts the course to pay for its upkeep. The homeowners might not even play golf, he said.

“In so-called common interest areas, the cost for maintaining it should always be paid by the whole ownership — by everybody,” he said. “Not single out a few and say, ‘You do it.’ But that’s what you find very often.”

Sprigg said common area upkeep has been a longstanding problem at Sterling Ranch and is a reason he ran for a seat on the board. He said he expects the matter to be dealt with at Thursday’s board meeting.

“We’re trying to right a wrong and get it out in the open,” said Sprigg, who has lived in Sterling Ranch for 15 years. “Progress is slow, but it’s definitely going to be taken care of next week.”