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East County Wednesday, Mar. 10, 2010 5 years ago

Latest HOA fine sparks Jensen remarks

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by: Michael Eng Managing Editor

LAKEWOOD RANCH — Schroeder-Manatee Ranch President and CEO Rex Jensen is calling for reason and common sense following the latest disputed homeowner’s association fine in Lakewood Ranch.

Greenbrook Fields residents Malcolm and Karen Ronney last week paid a $2,250 fine for a small plaque they had placed on their home in 2006. The Ronneys, also owners of MacAllisters Grill & Tavern on Lakewood Ranch Main Street, are natives of Scotland, and the sign was part of their heritage.

“In Scotland, it’s (customary) to name your home,” Karen Ronney. “The sign says, ‘Albanach,’ which his Gaelic for ‘Scotsman.’”

But the sign, measuring about 12 inches by 4 inches, violated Greenbrook regulations. And more than three years later, the Greenbrook Homeowner’s Association sent the fine plus interest to the Gulf Coast Collection Bureau.

Jensen, who has remained silent on the issue since Summerfield resident Joani Ellis told her story to The East County Observer Feb. 11, now is asking community leaders to reevaluate their practices.

“I see the equity on both sides,” Jensen said of the fines. “But it comes to a point: Can’t we all just get reasonable? A plaque is not the world’s biggest problem.

“Had it been me (on the board), I wouldn’t have said, ‘Rules are rules,’ he said. “I wouldn’t have taken a cannon out to shoot a fly.”

SIGN OF THE TIMES
Natives of Scotland, the Ronneys moved to Lakewood Ranch in 2004 specifically to open their Scottish-themed restaurant on Main Street. They bought their home in Greenbrook Fields and then a condo a year later. Finally, in 2006, the Ronneys were among the first restaurateurs on Lakewood Ranch’s retail crown jewel.

As with their business, the Ronneys wanted to show their Scottish pride at home and placed the “Albanach” sign on the front of their house. But it wasn’t long before they received the first letter alerting them of the code violation.

The Ronneys initially disputed the violation. The HOA then held a hearing on Nov. 22, 2006, and established that it would fine the Ronneys $50 per day until the sign was removed.

According to current Greenbrook HOA President Tom Headley, the Ronneys sent a letter to the HOA Dec. 4, 2006, asking for a procedural variance. On Dec. 12, 2006, the HOA left a voice mail for the Ronneys and then about one month later, on Jan. 4, 2007, sent them a letter notifying them of the $2,150 fine they faced because the sign was still up.

Four days later, on Jan. 8, 2007, the Ronneys removed the sign.

The sign had been up for 47 days total. At $50 per day, the fine totaled $2,250, Headley said.

PLUS THREE YEAR’S INTEREST
After removing the sign, the Ronneys say they did not receive any more communication from the HOA. They did not pay the fine and allowed it to stay dormant for more than two years.

“We’re not innocent in this,” Karen Ronney said. “We didn’t hear anything, and we thought it had gone away.”

And in a way, it had. Headley noted the previous HOA board had decided it would not send to collection any fine of less than $5,000. But in July 2009, the current board voted to send all unpaid fines to collection. Headley could not recall the number of fines, but the Ronneys’ violation was among them.

Last November, the Ronneys received a notice from the Gulf Coast Collection Bureau of the fine — which had increased to $3,278.59 because of interest that had accumulated in the last three years.

In December, Malcolm Ronney called Headley to appeal the new fine. Headley advised him to present his case at the Feb. 25 board meeting.

The Ronneys did not attend the meeting but sent a letter asking for a reduction in the fine.

“What I am asking to be considered is a reduction in the fine, a new amount to be (issued) and the existing fine to be deleted,” Malcolm Ronney wrote.

The HOA decided it would eliminate the accrued interest and bring the Ronneys’ fine back to $2,250.

“We took off more than $1,000,” Headley said.

The Ronneys paid the reduced fine — primarily to put an end to the dispute and preserve their credit, they said. They don’t know what they will do with the “Albanach” but are considering placing it in MacAllisters.

CHANGES
With their dispute over, the Ronneys now hope their story can elicit change in the governing practices of Lakewood Ranch’s HOAs.

“I wish SMR were still in charge,” Malcolm Ronney said. “If SMR were in charge, this would have been nipped in the bud. Common sense would have prevailed.

“Something has to change,” he said.

Some things have. Headley noted the Greenbrook’s HOA has changed its fine structure and eliminated the daily fine. According to the Greenbrook Homeowners’ Manual, the fine for signs is now $25 per month. Not counting interest, the Ronneys’ fine would have been about $50 under the new fine structure.

However, Headley cautioned that the board cannot change drastically its rules for any one resident.

“As a board, we need to be careful about what we do,” he said. “We set precedents that affect every homeowner.”

Furthermore, Headley said many HOAs are facing budgetary restrictions because of the increase in foreclosures and vacant properties. Last year, those properties added up to $32,247 in uncollected Greenbrook HOA dues, Headley said. Moreover, the HOA is incurring additional costs to keep the lawns and landscaping of those empty homes up to HOA standards.

And although Jensen said SMR will not become involved in HOA matters, he encouraged leaders not to take SMR’s original rules as gospel.

“I don’t buy the ‘These are the rules SMR gave us’ argument,” Jensen said. “As a developer, we did not necessarily envision every little thing, so as you go through life, you encounter it, and maybe it’s something you didn’t anticipate.

“You can’t take these things as chiseled in stone, as commandments,” he said. “If they aren’t working for you, then modify them. … You have got to apply reason and common sense, and you need to look at what your priorities are.”

Contact Michael Eng at meng@yourobserver.com.

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