Seminole Heights residents in uproar over neighborhood improvement foundation


Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

By Alexandra Zayas

May 1, 2009

TAMPA In Old Seminole Heights, a neighborhood of historic bungalows and oak-shaded streets, accusations and alliances are ripping at the community.

Residents are filling blogs with anonymous comments. They're speaking out at meetings, using words like "secrecy" and "snakes."

They're hiring lawyers.

All because three neighbors formed a nonprofit foundation, hoping to solicit tax-deductible donations to plant trees and install historic streetlights and build sidewalks.

And because a larger group of neighbors, which also wants to plant trees and install historic streetlights and build sidewalks, says it had been planning on starting that same foundation.

Its plans were stolen, it thinks, by the very people with whom it was planning.

At a heated meeting this week, one thing became evident:

The root of this problem goes far deeper than a desire to plant trees.

Stories of neighborhood association infighting abound: the Cheval debacle deemed "World War III" that started over a wrought-iron mailbox; the Odessa resident sued by his homeowners association for parking a pickup truck outside his home.

But Old Seminole Heights isn't a deed-restricted, cookie-cutter community. It's a scrappy central Tampa district that's undergone a renaissance in the last decade.

It's a place where bohemians and yuppies and the working class make up one of the most successful neighborhood associations in town, managing a budget of more than $50,000.

The problem? They're stepping on each others toes trying to do good.

Since the early 1990s, the 600-member Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association has been talking about setting up a nonprofit foundation that would allow donors to make tax-deductible contributions for neighborhood improvements.

In the fall, the association ramped up its efforts, hiring a tax attorney and setting up a committee. But neighborhood associations are big, slow-moving creatures. Boards need to vote on details. Decisions take time.

On March 10, three neighbors beat it to registering the foundation. And not just for the association, but for the entire Seminole Heights area, which includes two other neighborhoods, South and Southeast Seminole Heights. They filed for 501(c)3 status and sent out a press release.

The association's board was caught off-guard. The foundation's three officers were all leaders in the association and knew about its plans at least one had served on the association's foundation committee and was privy to its research.

To add to the injury, the foundation snagged two .org web domain names: seminoleheightsfoundation and oldseminoleheightsfoundation.

Was it so that the association wouldn't be able to compete?

Was this personal?

One foundation member had resigned a month earlier as treasurer. Another ran for president and lost in an election so contentious that neighbors speculated about the formation of political parties.

The association's board decided to take a vote, as association boards do.

It hired a lawyer.

The three foundation heads received a letter from attorney Hunter Chamberlin:

You usurped virtually every idea (the association) had been contemplating with respect to the 501(c)3

You have engaged in subversive activity

You have exposed the Foundation and yourselves individually to legal liability.

The demands: The association wants both Web sites, a statement that the foundation isn't affiliated with the association and either the dissolution of the foundation or a name change.

Board members aren't threatening a lawsuit, but say they'll take their case to an international corporation that settles Web disputes.

The association paid $400 to mail its 600 members its version of what happened. And it has voted not to disclose what its paying the lawyer.

The foundation's response: silence, even after neighbors asked foundation officers to speak about the controversy at a meeting Tuesday night.

Instead, foundation members listened as the board's vice president reviewed the conflict.

"The Seminole Heights Foundation has done nothing wrong, legally. But ethically?" vice president Evan St. Ives asked, "I guess we're going to talk about that."

Yellow fliers circulated the packed church basement. They said Fire the Lawyer.

Some neighbors said they felt betrayed. They used the term "insider information." They asked: Could this be litigated?

Others thought the board was overreacting. They asked: Can't the two work together?

Half an hour after the meeting was supposed to end, board members said they would move forward. The following day, the blog posts were about peace.

But the lawyer remains on the association's payroll.