Better neighbors, sans fences

Article Courtesy of The Tampa Tribune


Published April 24, 2011

TAMPA - Don't like a school policy? Call your school board member. Unhappy with the condition of a county road, email your commissioner. Don't like a proposed federal bill, write your congressman.

But what happens when your neighborhood's landscaping looks bleak or the homeowners association raises your fees without your input?

When confronting neighborhood issues, residents often find themselves up against the very people they borrow cups of sugar from or chat with while mowing the lawn.

Navigating the world of neighborhood politics sometimes can create awkward and ugly situations when neighbors disagree on hot-button issues. But experts say residents can educate themselves to prevent neighborhood issues from escalating.

Problems recently reached an extreme pitch in the Town 'N Country community of Countryway. There, residents spent months battling the master board, which makes decisions and manages finances for the 1,500-home community, about how it was spending money and a fee increase.

Board members refused to back down, saying they were dealing with residents who were uninformed and unwilling to pay for neighborhood necessities. In February, the entire board was replaced three members resigned before the election, and two decided not to run for re-election.

But unlike other political leaders who can disappear to lick their wounds after defeat, those board members still have to live close to many of the neighbors who rose up against them.

"It's very hard to live there knowing so many bad things are said about you," said ousted board president JoAnn Doherty. "I was just trying to make my neighborhood a good place to live."

Problems in Countryway began last year after residents asked to review meeting minutes and financial records, which showed the board was spending more than it was taking in and had depleted reserve accounts.

Then in November, the board increased dues by 51 percent to $374 a year.

"There was no reason to raise dues; it was poor management of money," said Bruce Bertan, an association president for one of Countryway's 20 subdivisions, which are collectively governed by the master board.

Board members told residents they took a hit when homes went into foreclosure and some residents stopped paying dues. They also said rising costs forced them to raise dues to keep up with maintenance.

Experts who deal with neighborhood associations say there are easy ways to avoid conflicts.

"The No. 1 thing you can do is attend your neighborhood meetings and get involved," said John Ricciardi, who works for Severn Trent, a company that manages community development districts.

"It's my experience that these meetings are poorly attended, and it's always the same handful of people," he said.

Residents often get involved in issues late, only after growing unhappy with touchy topics such as security or landscaping, Ricciardi said.

"They don't often understand that numerous discussions were likely held on the topic and that it's much more complicated than it seems," he said.

Bertan admits that most residents did not attend Countryway meetings but doesn't believe they should have to.

"People don't go to those things," he said. "They should be keeping us informed through our newsletter and website."

Clearly communicating with residents is one piece of advice Mark Basurto, an attorney who represents neighborhood associations, offers boards.

"I think newsletters and websites are important so residents know about the decisions being made," he said. "But everyone should start by reading their own documents."

Homeowners should read the policies that regulate their communities before buying there, Basurto said.

And he says homeowners shouldn't be afraid to challenge decisions that go against those policies.

"Board members usually aren't trying to pull something over on residents, they may simply not know," he said. "Many of the people who take on these positions have little experience when they start."

That's why Basurto recommends associations use professional management groups and attorneys to help guide resident leaders through complicated issues.

Complete leadership upheavals are rare among neighborhoods, Bertan said.

"Most people are happy with the leaders that run their communities," he said. "And for the times when you aren't, it's like any other government body: If you make some noise, you are usually heard."