Manatee neighborhood seeks to secede from homeowners association


Article Courtesy of The Herald Tribune


July 2, 2009


MANATEE COUNTY - Mary Scott says she cannot sit by idly as the dues in her East Manatee homeowner association have continued to rise and she sees no benefit from them.

The money is not being spent equally throughout the Creekwood community's five neighborhoods, Scott says, and paying monthly dues to keep up a community pool she never uses has frustrated her even more.

"I just don't like the idea of waking up one day and possibly owing thousands of dollars in a lawsuit to someone who got hurt at the pool," said Scott, a Creekwood resident for more than a decade.

Though homeowners groups typically keep neighborhoods tidy and help protect property values, it's not uncommon for some residents to tire of paying yearly dues.

But Scott and a few of her neighbors may take their case to another level by filing legal paperwork to seek a divorce from the remaining four Creekwood neighborhoods.

The rumblings of a possible secession have caused some hard feelings in Creekwood and promises from the association that a legal battle could ensue to preserve the community.

Creekwood is a deed-restricted community of about 600 homes at the northwest corner of Interstate 75 and State Road 70.

About 25 percent of those homes are in the Westbrook neighborhood, where Scott and others have been discussing a breakaway.

However, separating may not be as easy as they think.

There is no record of a similar successful bid for separation in Florida, said Creekwood Master Association president Michael Walley after speaking with lawyers and homeowner association experts.

The association argues that the split is impossible because Westbrook homeowners signed a contract to live there and abide by the rules.

And, Walley said, he expects residents of Westbrook and the community as a whole will never agree to separate once they realize the financial consequences.

Westbrook neighborhood officials say secession would lower annual dues considerably while also forming a smaller community where it would be easier to satisfy its residents.

The annual fee for each homeowner is $712 -- an increase of about $300 since 1996. Creekwood was established in 1990.

The fees are "reasonable, considering the amenities," such as the pool, basketball hoops and tennis courts, Walley said.

Those features, however, include an $84 annual maintenance charge for all residents, including those who don't use the facilities, Scott said.

But many residents moved to Creekwood partially because of the pool and recreation area, said Craig and Tracie Smith, Westbrook residents for 12 years.

"Everyone who bought here knows what they were getting into," Craig Smith said. "It's not fair to come into a neighborhood and then want to change it."

Scott, who is also Westbrook's sub-association president, said a group began talks in recent months as frustrations swelled over rising annual dues.

"All the residents of Creekwood have concerns, I think," Scott said. "These days, you don't want your dues to continue to skyrocket."

Scott said a sizeable amount of the dues go to landscape county land along Creekwood Boulevard. But Walley said the county is unlikely to maintain the land up to Creekwood standards.

About two-thirds of Westbrook signed a petition to learn about the separation and will receive more information in four to six weeks, Scott said.

Westbrook residents Zsolt Szekely and Tunde Kakucs are interested in seeing a business plan for the separation but remain skeptical.

"If it only saves $100 to $150 a year, it's not worth it to give up the pool and the tennis court," Szekely said at a Creekwood community picnic Saturday.

Walley promised Westbrook would be snagged up in a "huge legal battle" if it moved forward.

"It's not a question of walking out the door and saying, 'I don't want to be part of this anymore,'" Walley said. "The easiest way to void their agreement is to sell their house and leave."

Dan Lobeck, a Sarasota attorney who works with condominium and community associations, said the break-up is possible, but that there would be roadblocks in the community's declaration.

The Creekwood Master Declaration allows dissolution only if two-thirds of all Creekwood residents agree to it, according to the declaration's covenants section.

The remaining Creekwood homeowners will likely turn away when they are informed their annual dues would increase by about $250 as a consequence, Walley said.

Lobeck said he knows of one other Manatee County neighborhood that flirted with the idea of splitting from its master association, but dropped it because of the complexities.