LITHIA — Charles and Meredith Van Auken purchased in FishHawk Ranch because they liked the serene, natural setting.
Now, seven years later, the couple says they feel blindsided because their homebuilder didn't disclose that TECO Energy owned an easement 200 feet behind their property and might someday run high-voltage transmission lines there.
"When we purchased our home we were led to believe there was a buffer between us and the next neighborhood, not a utility easement," Charles Van Auken said.
As FishHawk Ranch residents gear up to fight the utility and its plan, the Van Aukens and others here say they're bewildered and angry about why they didn't hear about the transmission lines until recently, even though TECO acquired the easements years before they purchased their homes.
The Van Aukens said that none of their closing documents reference the easements. Neither does a site plan depicting their property, nor a 7-year-old marketing brochure from developer Newland Communities. The site plan points out a "200-foot buffer strip," not a utility easement.
Many other residents said the same. Some claimed their builder told them about one easement but not the other. Others said they heard nothing about either easement until early April after TECO mailed flyers about the transmission lines to homes in Wimauma and Lithia, including FishHawk Ranch and surrounding communities.
"They made us feel very confident that nothing was ever going to happen, and that TECO had owned it for decades and nothing would ever be built on it," resident Pamela Noto said of her builder.
Noto said she and husband, Greg, wonder whether the couple and their three children should sell their house, assuming they can find a buyer, after purchasing seven years ago. She says they never would have bought the home had they know about the two easements.
"Our children would be heart-broken," Pamela Noto said. "They love it here."
Another resident, Roger Rush, says it also surprised him to learn about the easements. Rush and his wife, Olga, bought their three-bedroom home six years ago and dealt with a licensed real estate agent, not a builder. They said nothing disclosed to them alluded to any utility easement.
"We looked at every document and nothing mentioned power lines," Roger Rush said. "It's one thing to purchase a home with power lines already behind you. You know what you're getting. It's another thing to sell someone a piece of property and never to be told. That's just wrong."
Developer Newland Communities said it certainly did not hide any information from potential homebuyers and included the easements on informational brochures at its welcome center. Harcros said Newland also diseminated information about the easements to homebuilders.
"Newland does not build houses," said Newland senior vice president Rick Harcrow. "For property owners who say they paid a premium for this view, we do not have a transactional relationship with them. They close with the builder."
Harcrow said Newland cares about the neighbors' plight and is working with them to try to convince TECO to shift the power lines to less populated areas. Newland plans to meet with TECO officials Wednesday.
Cardel Homes, the builder of the Noto's house, said it also supports the homeowners and denied hiding anything from them. The company said a brochure provided at its model home clearly showed the utility easement.
In an email to the Times, Cardel's regional president Kent Hollman said, "We had purchased the lots from Newland as developed lots. Our customers would have had access to the same information we would have had regarding the TECO easement."
The Van Auken's house was built by K. Hovnanian Homes, based in Red Bank, N.J. Several phone messages left Tuesday and Wednesday with George Schulmeyer, the company's division president in Tampa, were not returned.
Susan O'Connor of Keller Williams Realty, who dealt with Roger and Olga Rush, said she couldn't recall the home sale or whether she had talked to the couple about an easement.
"Certainly if there was something that would adversely impact someone I would tell them," she said.
TECO hasn't decided whether it's moving ahead with the transmission lines. The company said it's trying to buy power from other energy providers and is expecting bids from those companies by Tuesday.
The company has said that if the bids come in too high, it will submit plans to state regulators by late July or early August for the transmission lines, along also with plans to beef up its power generating station in southwestern Polk County and a new substation in Wimauma.
The company said it would break ground in two years to bring the substation on line by 2017.