LAKEWOOD RANCH — The shopping cart in his neighbor’s front yard is just the first of many annoyances in Brian Blanco’s once pristine Lakewood Ranch neighborhood.
As the Greenbrook Dale resident steps out his front door, he can’t help but cringe. The foreclosure-stricken home across the street — and the unauthorized tenant living in it — have become the talk of the neighborhood.
Ordinarily, Blanco said he wouldn’t be one to complain. But the stacking pile of violations — leaving the trash cans out all week, failing to maintain the yard and others — have made this yard, at times, what Blanco considers an “embarrassment.”
And much to his chagrin, there’s only so much his homeowner’s association can do.
“The most frustrating thing is you can do nothing,” Blanco said. “Even though Lakewood Ranch Town Hall and the people at Town Hall are trying, and they are doing their best, there’s nothing they can do. Until the sheriff comes and kicks them out, we can just sit here and issue them notices.”
Unfortunately for Lakewood Ranch residents, Blanco isn’t alone.
By design, deed restrictions are intended to protect property values and community aesthetics. But homeowners and associations alike are finding themselves in a somewhat precarious situation, particularly in foreclosure cases, where homeowners often are absent and banks prove unresponsive.
Neighbors in Greenbrook have raised concerns over a home in the 6200 block of Macaw Glen in Greenbrook Haven that burned in September 2008. The home’s front is charred black and boarded up, and a hole in the roof has only gotten larger over time. When The East County Observer first reported about the home in April 2010, the Greenbrook Village Association board already had lobbied twice to the county asking to have the home demolished because they felt it posed a safety issue.
County officials said the structure was structurally sound and that there was nothing they could do. The bank hasn’t closed on the property, but the case is headed to trial Feb. 23, court records show.
Greenbrook Village Association President Tom Headley said a representative of the county came out within the last six months, and the home still is considered structurally sound.
In Summerfield Crest, another home sits with a garage door bowed out enough that individuals could climb through the sides to enter it. Court records show the bank began foreclosure proceedings in August 2010, but the owners satisfied the lis pendens in early November 2010.
One resident, operating under the name Save Our Homes, issued a formal complaint to Community Development District 1 supervisors detailing this and several other violations in Summerfield.
“This home has been an absolute eyesore for the residents of Summerfield Crest for more than two years, and now as a potential safety threat, needs to be dealt with and corrected immediately at the risk of a lawsuit against the community and residents of Lakewood Ranch,” wrote the resident, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution for speaking out.
“We all take turns trying to keep up the yard,” the resident later told The East County Observer. “I’m frustrated with (the association) not being able to do anything.”
LAX IN LAKEWOOD?
Additionally, many homeowners feel like enforcement has declined in the last few years.
Carol Vogel and her husband, Dave, live near several homes in foreclosure in Greenbrook Dale.
“The banks take these houses, but they don’t do anything but just barely keep the grass up,” Carol Vogel said.
The couple has lived in Lakewood Ranch for the last 12 years overall, and Dave Vogel even joined the enforcement committee when he and his family moved into Greenbrook Dale five years ago to help ensure the neighborhood’s restrictions would be enforced. He unofficially gave up on his duties about nine months ago because he felt the board was making too many exceptions and the property management company has been unresponsive.
“Sometimes, you come to a point of acceptance, and sometimes it shouldn’t be acceptable,” Dave Vogel said.
Regarding the home across the street from Blanco, the Vogels say they’ve seen several violations in the last two years. Dave Vogel once counted as many as 19 people living there. And another resident likened the home to the neighborhood clubhouse for kids.
“The woman (who lives there) is never home, so all the kids know to go and play over there,” the resident said. “We’ve seen kids shooting baskets from the roof.”
The resident leading Save Our Homes, who once considered Lakewood Ranch’s rules too strict, also has seen a steady decline in enforcement.
“There used to be a time when a light couldn’t be out for two days before you got a notice,” the resident said. “But not these days.”
POWER AND LIMITATIONS
Despite residents’ arguments, Headley said his HOA has not wavered in its mission to protect the interests of its residents.
“We have made no conscious decision to lower the level of our enforcement,” he said. “Our guidance to the management company is to continue to enforce (the rules) at the same level we always have.”
Most homeowners, he said, have a problem with the time it takes to have an issue corrected.
“We certainly take our covenants seriously, and we have two methods in place, where violations can be reported,” he said.
First, the association’s property management company, which operates out of Lakewood Ranch Town Hall, conducts weekly inspections of each neighborhood. Homeowners also can submit violations they see through the Digital Village website.
Once a violation has been found, the property owner is sent a letter and given 30 days to correct it. The property management company continues to monitor the situation, and if the violation is not corrected, the association sends the property owner a certified letter, giving the homeowner another 30 days to fix the problem and setting a hearing before the association’s compliance committee.
If at that time the homeowner still has not resolved the issue, he or she can be fined, or other “appropriate action” can be taken, Headley said. In the case of many foreclosures, the association obtains legal approval to enter the property and can begin paying a contractor to mow the yard.
“We do that on foreclosed properties on a regular basis,” Headley said, noting the costs are attached as a lien on the property. “We have some foreclosed properties that we may maintain for six months or longer, and we have a good company (we use) so we’re not paying outrageous fees.
“It’s effective,” he said. “Some people don’t like that we have to wait 60 days. I wish we could speed it up, but we can’t.”
In the case of the Summerfield/Riverwalk Village Association, Association President Vicky Horswood said the association often is limited in what it can do.
“The only enforcement we have and the only tool we have is to request that a homeowner come in to compliance and within a reasonable (time),” Horswood said. “There’s a set amount it can accumulate to. It’s just there. You can’t force (someone) to do something.”
The board, she said, typically sends unpaid violation fines to collection agencies.
Horswood also noted homeowners can make requests to the board at any time. The association’s revisions and restrictions committee meets annually, usually in the summer, to discuss potential restriction changes and then make their recommendations to the association board.
Headley said the association enforces rules equally against property owners, corporations and banks, regardless of who owns the property.
“We apply the same standards across the board,” he said.
But, he noted, banks often will delay on putting the home under their name until it is ready to sell.
“Banks are not always timely in filing that paperwork with the county,” he said. “But ultimately, when it’s sold, the bank pays us.”
Changes in law now prevent homeowners associations from foreclosing and taking ownership of homes with delinquent dues. However, associations can attach liens to the home so that when it sells, overdue assessments still can be collected.
Within the last year, the Legislature also gave HOAs the authority to collect rent from tenants until a delinquent assessment is paid off when the landlord is failing to pay fines or annual assessments, Headley said.
Boards also have the authority to delay the fining process or grant waivers. In the case of the burned house on Macaw Glen, for example, the Greenbrook Village Association board has opted not to do anything because the property is under litigation and investigation. The board decided the structure’s condition would pose a danger to any contractor who entered the property, Headley said.
He also noted instances in which the board has allowed a homeowner to delay the re-sodding of his yard until the rainy season as well as a time when a homeowner was given an extra year to re-paint his home because of financial hardship. But after that year passed with no changes, the board began enforcing penalties, Headley said.
“The board tries to apply common sense and not just be a jerk about things, but homeowners have to ask for that,” he said.
David Muller, an attorney with Becker & Poliakoff and co-executive director of the firm’s Community Association Leadership Lobby, said the primary way for homeowner’s associations to enforce their restrictions is found in Florida Statute 720.311, which handles dispute resolution through a mediator.
But even if a judge rules in favor of the association and requires the homeowner to come into compliance, there is no guarantee.
“Just because you get a judgment from an owner that says you are owed $8,000, that judgment doesn’t miraculously turn into money,” Muller said. “If they don’t have assets, you can’t collect.
“(The associations) hands aren’t tied, but pursuing enforcement can cost money and may not be the first option,” he said.
Muller also noted that associations, if they do nothing, open themselves to the concept of selective enforcement and essentially render their enforcements unenforceable.
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].
Editor’s note: Brian Blanco is married to East County Observer Associate Editor Jen Blanco.