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Vacant lot owners told: Build, landscape, pay or go

APOLLO BEACH — These days, a tension hangs over the quiet streets of Andalucia.

Rival groups of property owners avoid each other except at board meetings, where they clash. Increasingly, they speak through their attorneys.

The Andalucia Master Association's board has been trying to force owners of vacant lots to build houses since 2003.

Late last year, the association replaced that demand with orders to install landscaping, sidewalks and other amenities on empty lots.

Lot owners objected, saying the improvements would cost them $20,000 to $30,000 each.

In Andalucia, where home prices range from $500,000 to $4-million, 227 property owners seem divided about what it means to be a good neighbor.

"It really has turned personal," said Leon Arndt, 61, one of a group of dissenting lot owners. "People cross the street to avoid meeting each other. It's tearing the community apart."

Some homeowners say that the 24 owners of 28 vacant lots in contention have only themselves to blame.

"It's a very nice community," said Georgia Arner, 54, "and it bothers me immensely that [vacant-lot owners] are trying to ruin it."

A new round of letters arrived April 26, ordering the lot owners to submit landscaping plans or face fines. To comply, they will have to install sprinkler systems supplied by wells or connections to the county's water lines, landscape up to half their lot and cover the rest with St. Augustine grass.

Citing safety concerns, the association also wants sidewalks in front of all lots, vacant or occupied. Until now, residents have built sidewalks with their new homes. They have bought and planted two queen palms for each property, maintained a 10-foot strip between their sidewalks and the street and erected $600 mailboxes topped with globe-shaped lights — all improvements Andalucia wants vacant lot owners to supply as well.

Lot owners say they are being targeted in a grudge match that began in 2003, when residents decided to invoke previously unenforced covenants. One of those rules: Owners were required to start construction within 12 months of buying a lot.

The association pushed the get-tough policy after four of seven board members had taken between 22 and 36 months to either build on or sell their own vacant properties. Now, lot owners say, the same board wants them to supply amenities that would all be destroyed when they get around to building.

"The key point here, which I cannot emphasize strongly enough," said Arndt, "is that vacant-lot owners never wanted anything except to be left alone under the same process that had been in place since Andalucia's inception."

Before the market turned, Arndt said he planned to move from his existing Andalucia home and build on his vacant lot.

Mike Wall, president of the Andalucia Master Association, declined to comment on the tug-of-war between residents and lot owners.

"We've worked on it quite a while, and have decided that it's best to let the attorneys sort it out," he said. Though no lawsuits have been filed, a wait-and-see atmosphere prevails.

Among the residents who support letting lawyers sort it out is Sandy Hopper, who lives next door to Arndt's vacant lot on Rubia Circle.

"I don't know too many people who can pay $850,000 for a lot and then cry poor because they don't want to pay $30,000 to fix it," said Hopper, 55. That 2005 purchase price is accurate, Arndt said, adding, "I'd be surprised if I could get $600,000 for it now."

Controversy also remains alive over who is responsible for building sidewalks.

The lot owners point to the association's covenants, which describe sidewalks as property owned by the association.

"While that is a correct legal argument, the prior practice has been that individual property owners pay for and install sidewalks at the time their home is constructed," said Eric Appleton, the attorney representing Andalucia.

Attorney Peter Dunbar, who wrote a book about homeowners association law, said that an association has the right to change its rules, so long as the changes apply to all residents and are meted out in a timely fashion. That's a point of contention since owners didn't have to landscape their vacant properties before.

Of Andalucia's conflicts, Dunbar said, "It holds the potential for a really expensive dispute."

But if lot owners really want to get out of landscaping bare lots, seven-year Andalucia resident Georgia Arner has some advice: "Build a house."

A neighbor, Bob Klenk, said investors who wanted to reap the profits of a booming market must bear the losses when that market turns bad. "They say, 'I'll buy a piece of property in Andalucia,' " said Klenk, 78. " And I'll hold onto it and hold onto it until I get as much as I can."

Word of the strife may be giving customers cold feet. Two potential buyers for a lot owned by Gary Phillips got cold feet when he told them about disputes between owners and the association. "They decided they would move on to other properties where they didn't have to deal with all the arguing," said Phillips, 50.

Realtor Jeff Launiere said he sees both sides of the conflicts, and doesn't think the legal disputes will affect buyers. Anticipation of similar conflicts may have led two other communities, Lake Jovita near Wesley Chapel and Valencia Lakes in Wimauma, to ban investors altogether.

Of the ongoing tensions in Andalucia, Launiere said, "It just doesn't look like it is ever going to get finished."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (813) 661-2431 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

Andalucia:

At war over turf

1989: Andalucia Master Association is incorporated. Covenants include a requirement to start building within a year after purchasing vacant property or developer has option to repurchase the lot.

1998: Developer transfers ownership and control of Andalucia to residents.

November 2003: The association's board gives vacant lot owners 80 days to submit building design plans or risk having to sell their homes back to the association for the prices they paid, plus 6 percent.

January 2006: The board gives owners 30 days to declare their intentions for their vacant lots, or be forced to build or sell.

May 2007: Board decides to require sidewalks paid for by the lot owners. Lot owners lawyer up.

November 2007: Board urges the community to amend its rules, deleting the build-out requirement but mandating landscaping for vacant properties.

November 2007: As drought conditions persist, Hillsborough County asks 900 homeowners associations for the second time to ease off fining residents for brown spots on lawns. Andalucia's landscaping requirement would compel lot owners to dump 57- to 115 million gallons of water a year onto vacant lots, according to Leon Arndt, a retired engineer who based his calculations on county water usage before and after installing a well at his house.

March: Board decides to suspend landscaping enforcement until attorneys have studied the sidewalks issue.

April: Board demands that lot owners submit landscaping plans for their vacant properties, including underground irrigation systems and lighted mailboxes, or face fines.

>>inside

Crisis chronology

How the community controversy came about from 1989 to the present.

Page 6

Vacant lot owners told: Build, landscape, pay or go 05/08/08 [Last modified: Saturday, May 10, 2008 2:56pm]

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