Home disputes, mystery cash


Article Courtesy of  The Miami Herald

Posted on Saturday, February 12, 2005


Community associations are dealing with developers directly, settling disagreements over neighboring development by accepting money spent in sometimes unknown ways.

When residents of South Dade's Saga Bay and Old Cutler Glen felt overwhelmed by plans to put 525 new homes in an adjacent development, they negotiated a deal by promising not to fight the project.

It worked: In return, developer Shoma Homes agreed to lower the number of homes to 505 and to build a six-foot wall between the communities.

Also part of the agreement were two $125,000 checks written by Shoma -- one each for the Saga Bay and Old Cutler Glen homeowners associations.

In the past few years, several such private cash settlements have popped up in agreements between community groups and developers, giving rise to questions about how the money is spent.

Where the money went in Saga Bay's case, only the homeowners' association knows, and it's not providing any specifics. Saga Bay officials and their attorney, John Shubin, said the check paid for neighborhood enhancement. Details of agreements between homeowners' groups and developers are not subject to Florida's public record laws.

In Old Cutler Glen, association president Marshall Steingold said the group still has money in the bank and is looking at lighting entranceways to the community.

''But the first thing we did was give everyone a new mailbox,'' he said.

Saga Bay's $125,000 settlement was paid in installments, said board member Michael Vila, who read from a copy of the 2003 agreement during a telephone interview last week. He added that he and current board members had nothing to do with the deal.

''It doesn't say anywhere in the document where the money is supposed to go,'' he said.

Vila initially said he would provide The Herald a copy of the settlement agreement. Later, though, he said he's waiting to hear from an attorney about whether he could release it.

Shubin, who represented Saga Bay in its talks with Shoma but doesn't now, said he had not gotten authority from the homeowners' group to release settlement records. Shoma did not return calls.

Shubin said he has been involved in hundreds of such agreements, on both sides of the ledger.

Some are very public, such as a Coconut Grove deal in which developer Ugo Colombo has set up a trust that could be worth as much as $600,000 to the local community. Colombo plans to build the 32-story, 151-unit Grovenor House on Bayshore Drive.

In another agreement, Lennar, one of the county's biggest developers, gave the community of Lakes by the Bay $300,000 worth of drainage improvements. The work was finished last year, easing what had been perennial flooding along Southwest 216th Street.

Even in private cases, Shubin said there's nothing wrong with homeowners' groups' accepting cash settlements as long as the money goes toward the group's stated goals and objectives. ``I advise both sides it's inappropriate for the check to go to any individual within the organization.''

Still, some question whether it's the right thing to do.

South Bay Community Council Chairman Paul Vrooman brought the deals to public light during a council meeting in January: "It certainly is strong-arming. I see the applicant as the victim on this.''

Robert Meyers, who heads the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, worries that the general public has no right to see the agreements. ''And I think it needs to be out in the open because it eventually has to be approved by the community council,'' he said.

The community councils, regional panels set up to decide local development issues, are not allowed to participate in financial settlements among developers and homeowners' groups. Still, Meyers said he knows that some councils direct developers to strike deals before their projects come under official consideration.

''What about the rest of the community?'' he asked. "The community council is simply rubber stamping.''

Jaime Reyes, a Cutler Ridge advocate, said negotiating as a member of a community group gives him more leverage than he had as a South Bay Community Council member.

Reyes said he left the council post because all major zoning decisions were being made by the County Commission. Quitting has cleared him to negotiate financial settlements with developers ''for the good of the community,'' he said.

For example, Reyes said he helped achieve settlements in which developers United Homes and Center Line wrote checks totaling $45,000 to the Cutler Ridge Soccer Club and the Cutler Ridge Riptides swim club, two organizations that use Cutler Ridge Park.

United and Center Line wanted to build town-house and single-family home developments off Southwest 87th Avenue, said Lakes by the Bay President Jackie Shand, who with Reyes led the negotiations on homeowners' behalf.

Reyes said the money was used to buy soccer equipment, to repair a swimming pool and to send kids to St. Louis for a swim meet.

At the time, Reyes said, his daughter was involved in the soccer club and played water polo at the pool. "I did what I did to improve it.''

Shand's son also plays soccer at the park, but she stressed that the money did not pass through her hands or Reyes'.

Aside from the cash, the developers agreed to create homeowners associations for the neighborhoods and to restrict heavy construction during the daylight hours. Landscaping along 87th Avenue leading to Black Point Marina was also improved.

''We've done everything for the community,'' Reyes said.