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Pasco retirees at work against fee hike that props up golf club

SAN ANTONIO — Maybe he thought life in Florida would be one long tennis date.

Instead, Dom Gualtieri finds himself filing lawsuits, analyzing budgets and orchestrating an insurrection that doesn't rest, not even when he's visiting family in Boston.

The troops include a cop who investigated drug lords and gang members in New York City, and the folk-artist brother of Oldsmar's longtime mayor.

And oh yes: Gualtieri, a 71-year-old math professor; and accountant Anita Stuckly, 73, who says this of her youth: "I walked on the wild side."

They moved to Tampa Bay Golf & Country Club, a central Pasco 55-plus community with room for 1,600 homes, envisioning a peaceful retirement.

Yet the place is nothing less than a battlefield, with Gualtieri and Stuckly signing their correspondence with phrases such as "Fighting for Your Rights" and "Retirees on a Mission."

Their adversary is TOUSA, a Broward County developer that refuses to give control to the residents — a frequent side effect when build-out takes longer than expected. New Tampa's Cory Lake Isles was under developer control for nearly 20 years, drawing allegations of misconduct from some homeowners. In the Villages, near Ocala, a taxing board elected by commercial landowners makes decisions for more than 75,000 retirees.

At Tampa Bay Golf, where modest, cottage-style homes are arranged neatly on private roads, homeowner governance is on hold until the last 373 lots are sold, a situation that frustrates Gualtieri and his followers.

Critics of the developer and its appointed homeowner association board describe careless spending of their assessment money. They grouse about rising fees to shore up a money-losing country club, imposed at a time when everyone is tightening their belts.

"Now that we are on fixed incomes, we are bailing out the banks and bailing out the insurance companies and bailing out General Motors," Gualtieri told a standing room-only crowd at a recent homeowners' meeting.

"We just can't keep bailing people out."

Still entrenched

The course and clubhouse aren't technically the homeowners' responsibility. But former members of the development group own them and get most of the money from monthly dues. In the first four years Gualtieri lived here, those dues rose from $135 to $182, a sum "now approaching twice my annual Medicare payment," he wrote in a paper called "Are Retirees Being Fleeced?"

The association approved a $60 monthly increase at the November meeting. And its officers acknowledged 173 households are not members and might not have to pay, meaning everyone else's dues could go even higher.

At one point, there was an effort to sell the club to the home­owner association. Residents fought that move, worried about being saddled with so much expense.

But with or without ownership of the club, some homeowners say they are being exploited by the association and the community's subassociations.

Joyce Camidge, 75, moved to the Deer Hollow section of Tampa Bay Golf before either association existed. The original developer had promised free golf, she said. "My husband wanted that free golf and I love my husband."

When new developers took over, the Camidges were ordered to pay dues to two associations, a bill that topped $2,400 a year — before the recent increase. Between that expense and stock market losses, she said, "We find ourselves asking, can we afford to buy this in the grocery store?"

Jack Beverland, 70, writes "under protest" on each check, he said, and walks a picket line with his one-eared dog, Amo. The brother of Oldsmar Vice Mayor Jerry Beverland, he is a successful artist. "I don't miss a meal," he said. "But there are some ladies in here who are going to."

Donald Mounts, a retired New York City police detective, expressed his outrage in a letter to club managers after they announced the increase in dues.

While careful not to call anyone a criminal, he wrote, "I never thought that I again would be looking at individuals and organizations preying on those who they believe cannot fight back."

Reckless spending

Dues are just part of the story. In the past two years, Gualtieri and his group have uncovered a long list of decisions they consider fiscally unsound.

An Internet video, produced by a resident with Gualtieri's assistance, catalogues many of the grievances: The association paid Bright House too much for a bulk cable television deal under a contract that he contends is invalid anyway. The association has paid for lights and water treatment on land belonging to the country club and developer. Residents wonder why they are paying the entrance guard, who works mostly to admit guests to the club.

Stuckly, meanwhile, has researched land transfers between the parade of developers. Because of the transfers, she and her lawyer suspect the associations have no jurisdiction over many of the homes. She and Gualtieri also suspect the number is far higher than the 173 that the association acknowledged.

Gualtieri also contends that because no contract exists between the country club and the association, the club has no claim to homeowner dues.

Repeated calls to TOUSA attorney Paul Berkowitz and association president Andrew Chambers, who also works for TOUSA, were not returned.

But at the November homeowners' meeting, Chambers told the crowd that the association can and should continue to collect from all members, and fund the club as well.

He and the other officers are aware of the steep increase, "which we're working on," he said. "But we are responsible, as a master association per the documents, to collect those fees and to pay them" to the club. As for a contract, he said, "the written agreement is inherent to the master documents."

That issue might be decided in court. Gualtieri, Mounts and two other homeowners sued the association last week in Pasco Circuit Court. They want a judge to rule that collecting dues without a contract violates homeowner documents and Florida law.

Not everyone spends their time bashing the developer and association. Resident Basil Grussing, 67, who is on the Egret Landing board, says he just wants what's best for his community.

Grussing retired at age 52 after working as a quantitative analyst. He now has a part-time tax preparation business. A nine-year resident, he believes the association is acting legally, based on the opinions of lawyers they have consulted.

He would not comment on the tactics of Gualtieri's group. In any such community, amenities exist to sell homes, he said, and owners rarely appreciate the true cost when they buy in.

"The reason for living here is the amenities. That's why they were here, and a lot of us bought into the community believing we would use the amenities,'' he said. "Most of us don't use them the way we thought we would, but that's neither here nor there."

The corporate veil

Nothing is simple at Tampa Bay Golf, not even the question of who owns what.

Members of the Falcone family, prominent developers in Florida and Philadelphia, founded Trans­eastern Homes in the 1980s. Transeastern later merged with TOUSA and bought some Tampa Bay Golf holdings from an entity called Bayswater.

TOUSA is in bankruptcy re­organization and taking bids on its properties, including the unsold lots at Tampa Bay Golf. The Falcone Group owns the country club. It is losing so much money that, according to a September letter from the country club's mangers, the Falcones can no longer pay their mortgage.

Stuckly began her investigations two years ago, upset about an $800 assessment in Deer Hollow for a road project. Gualtieri, separately, started asking questions because the Bright House arrangement intrigued him.

When the two met, things snowballed. They both hired lawyers and demanded records.

Gualtieri said his group is hoping for a court date in January.

Will they prevail?

"My heart says yes," Beverland said. "But my gut says, I don't know. Because those people aren't stupid either."

For one thing, the developer and country club owners could let the golf course go out of business. Not wishing that outcome, Gualtieri is talking to a residents' group that might buy the club.

But he also has begun conversations with nearby Lake Jovita and Lexington Oaks­­ — and with a bus service for the golfers.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at sokol@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4602.

. fast facts

On the Web

You can see a resident-produced video about ongoing issues at Tampa Bay Golf & Country Club at this link: coastalvideo.com/tbgcc.

Pasco retirees at work against fee hike that props up golf club 12/25/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 25, 2009 8:51pm]
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