DUNEDIN — In a lawsuit that has stretched over two years, two courts and three judges, the condo association of a 55-and-over complex is trying to get rid of a Tampa couple, both of whom are 44.
The rules are clear, says the board of directors of the Royal Stewart Arms condo association. The age restriction is on the application. Section 14.8 of the Declaration of Condominium Ownership states their complex is an "adult community." No 44-year-olds, like Natalie and William Trudelle, allowed.
The lawsuit demands the Trudelles not enter the condo without an approved of-age resident over 55 and pay the association's legal fees. They wouldn't be forced to sell the condo as long as they continued to pay the association dues and insurance.
If the over-55 rule is not enforced, wrote attorney Joe Cianfrone in a 2007 court complaint, the complex would "sustain irreparable damage."
The Trudelles, who work in real estate, say the suit is a sham. Natalie Trudelle said she bought the condo 15 years ago for her mother and grandmother, both of whom died within two years and left her the unit.
The Trudelles lived there for less than a year, and in the decade since, they have rented to seasonal tenants older than 55. Other underage people have lived in the complex, they said, and it was never an issue. Then came the lawsuit.
"A third (of our neighbors) say it's ludicrous, a third don't give a rat's patootie and a third are on the board's side and say the rules must be followed," William Trudelle said. "Everyone out there says Honeymoon Island is paradise. We say they're trying to evict us from paradise."
The Fair Housing Act, passed in 1968 and amended two decades later, allows communities intended for those over 55 to discriminate against young potential renters and families with children. At least 80 percent of units must be occupied, it states, by a person older than 55.
So why can't their unit be in the other 20 percent, the Trudelles ask? They pay their taxes, their insurance, their $441 a month in association dues. Besides, they say, they're only ever there to decorate for potential renters.
The condo association won't budge.
"It is of no consequence that she claims to be there only to decorate," Cianfrone wrote in a 2007 letter to the association's board. "Any reason Ms. Trudelle provides for residing in the unit is irrelevant."
In the same letter, Cianfrone wrote the association could grant the Trudelles a "hardship exemption," allowing leniency because of Natalie Trudelle's former family connection. Department of Housing and Urban Development documents say the flexible protection is allowed but not required.
The board argues Trudelle never inherited the unit — it was hers all along. The sale application from 1994 shows Natalie as the applicant, with her mother and grandmother listed as additional occupants.
The Trudelles say they feel singled out by the association. They've compiled affidavits from former residents who would have been under 55. That includes board president John Hutchinson, who, they point to in records, was the sole owner of a unit there while underage.
Hutchinson disagrees, saying his unit was grandfathered in after the complex became age-restricted in 1988. He, like other board members, would not comment on the litigation. Four messages left for Cianfrone this week went unanswered.
Hutchinson did say any story on the 2-year-old legal complaint would be "premature," adding that "these kinds of cases happen all the time."
The case, moved from county to circuit court last month because county courts do not have jurisdiction over title disputes, continues, even as the Trudelles say they've given the board "every opportunity to drop the lawsuit."
They said they're sure they'll win. The board seems to disagree. The courts chug on.
"I would hope that you would try to get this matter mediated, or resolved somehow, instead of tilting (at) windmills like this," said Circuit Court Judge Radford Smith, according to a court transcript. "I mean, it just goes on and on and on."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Drew Harwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.