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Power struggle emerges

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  • | 4:00 a.m. September 10, 2009
  • Sarasota
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More than two-dozen homeowners in a Palmer Ranch community say they’ve been threatened with a lawsuit and a possible lien on their homes, because they switched the energy source for their front-yard lights.

Each home in The Hamptons has a gas-powered lamp that burns 24 hours a day. Four residents have converted from gas to electric, and 24 others are planning to convert.

The Hamptons homeowners association is considering suing the homeowners who have plans to switch power sources. One fact, though, is complicating the issue. The homeowners association’s own Architectural Control Committee (ACC) approved the conversions in July and August.

“What are they, nuts?” asked one homeowner who already made the conversion. “It can’t be possible. I got this approved.”

The Sarasota Observer spoke to three homeowners who received the OK to switch to electricity, but none wished to be identified because of the threat of a lawsuit.

The reasons they cited for wanting to convert had to do with cost savings and safety. The Hamptons homeowners association has budgeted more than $109,000 this year to pay for natural gas to power the front-yard lamps, some streetlights and pool-area lights. That adds up to about $400 per year for each of the community’s 254 homes. Powering the lights with electricity costs about $18 per year, per home, according to one homeowner who converted.

As far as safety, that same homeowner said when a power-company representative dug up the gas valve for his light, it was severely corroded (see photo), which he said could have led to a gas leak.

Several residents in The Hamptons objected to the ACC’s approval of the lamp conversions, and they asked for a recall election to oust the board members who voted to allow the homeowners to change their lamps.

The conversion-seeking residents said the aesthetics of a gas-powered light, as opposed to an electric-powered light, has been cited as the reason for the opposition.

In the Aug. 19 recall, two homeowners association members, Gary Lankenau and Eugenia Zaki, were replaced by John Meric and Sheryl Bennett, who are in favor of keeping the gas-powered lights. Bennett’s husband, John, was also named the new chairman of the ACC.

Homeowners have received letters that claimed the ACC approval was an error. But in an e-mail from the association’s attorney, Telese McKay, to its president, Nancy Niederecker, McKay states that “nothing gives the (association) board the right to overturn the ACC’s decision … There may be no way to really resolve this matter without litigation.”

The community’s bylaws don’t state that the lights cannot be converted. In fact, several homeowners seeking conversion are clinging to another part of the bylaws that state homeowners “shall maintain their yards and adjoining property to the edge of adjoining roadway.”

The homeowners believe that provision says because the lights are within their yards, they can do with them whatever they please.

McKay did not return calls seeking comment, and Niederecker declined to comment, citing pending litigation. She did, however, say that in a vote several years ago, the Hamptons homeowners overwhelmingly chose to keep the lights gas-powered. When asked why, then, did the ACC approve the conversion, she declined to comment.

“It’s like living in a dictatorship,” said one resident. “That’s what happens when you get people in here with small minds and big egos.”