ODESSA — A.J. Vizzi's dream home sat behind the gates of the Eagles, a deed-restricted community of 850 nearly identical homes in northwest Hillsborough.
At 3,800 square feet, it had four bedrooms, a game room, a swimming pool and a driveway big enough for his Ford F-350.
He didn't like the garage. No reason. "I just never cared to park in there," he said. He was so adamant, he didn't begin negotiations or sign a contract with the builder until he had the assurance that the deed restrictions allowed him to park outside.
Vizzi was in the Eagles for more than four years in October 2001 when the homeowners association put him on notice: Park the truck in the garage, not the driveway. "I was pretty taken in when I read it, just wondering what are they talking about," he said. He was sure that the letter was a mistake and a phone call to the property manager would end the confusion.
Nearly eight years, two judges, five lawyers and more than $100,000 later, there's still no resolution. A Hillsborough Circuit Court judge sided with Vizzi in December, and the Eagles Master Association filed an appeal.
"I'm just flabbergasted," Vizzi said. "Why did they take this to a court of law?"
Prolonged — and some might argue trivial — homeowners association spats fill Florida court dockets. Unassuming homeowners, who pay assessments to maintain their communities and enforce deed restrictions, are left to foot legal bills that can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.
State Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa, has tried for years to get both sides to consider swift and inexpensive resolutions rather than resorting to lawyers and costly court battles. His Home Court Advantage program would allow the HOA or the homeowner to file a dispute and settle the issue within 90 days through mediation. The cost: $300.
The measure passed the House and the Senate in 2008 before Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed it. It passed the House again this year, but the legislative session ended before the Senate could follow suit.
Ambler plans to reintroduce the bill during the next legislative session. He said he keeps pushing the issue because more than 80 percent of Floridians live under HOAs.
"When you have that large amount of people that are affected," he said, "it's important that we give them a more efficient, less expensive way to amicably resolve their differences so that these folks can get back to being good neighbors."
He said there is no way to track how widespread HOA tiffs have become. The state's 67 counties aren't yet on a uniform system that would allow officials to extrapolate data like that. Reports are largely anecdotal.
There was the flap over a mailbox in suburban West Palm Beach; the color of a woman's driveway in Boynton Beach; and the flag-raising neighbor in Jupiter.
Closer to home, the Pebble Creek Homeowners Association in New Tampa is in a nine-years-long battle with homeowner Edward Simmons. His crime? Dead grass.
"This was a small claims court issue," said Simmons, who has had five lawyers and spent more than $100,000 on a case that has been before five judges. "I thought it would be over after one hearing."
Cases like the one in Pebble Creek may sound frivolous, but association board members say they are elected to uphold community rules and standards. If homeowners ran amok, lawns would be unkempt, houses would be painted fuchsia and property values would fall.
"We have a duty and a responsibility," said Ishwer Mulchandani, president of the Van Dyke Farms HOA in Odessa. "Sometimes you have to take legal steps. Sometimes you don't have a choice."
Vizzi did not have anything against deed-restricted communities before his "nightmare" began. It was one of the reasons he moved into the Eagles.
"We liked the fact that we were moving into a gated community that had security 24 hours," he said. "You can see how tranquil it is."
What Vizzi did not anticipate was the Eagles taking him to court.
He received five more letters between October 2001 and May 2003, at which point they stopped coming. There was no correspondence between either side for nearly two years. It wasn't until February 2005 that the notices resumed and December 2006 that the Eagles filed suit.
All along, Vizzi had asked for a hearing before an impartial community board. The request was denied. He'd offered to trade in his truck, which was too big to fit in the garage, for a smaller one that would. The association had allowed other people in his situation to do that, Vizzi said.
"Yet me they said, 'You have to make arrangements to get rid of that truck now,' " he said. "That's not enforcing the rules. That's selectively enforcing."
Officials with the Eagles have not responded to requests for interviews with the St. Petersburg Times since November. The association's lawyer did not respond by press time.
At least one Hillsborough neighborhood has figured out a way to settle squabbles before they reach an attorney. Van Dyke Farms, a community of 421 homes, created a committee of a half-dozen volunteer residents — not HOA board members — who help their neighbors come into compliance.
The violation and mediation committee explores "a little more in depth why a homeowner is in violation, what we can do to help him comply, what is the real way to get around the situation," Mulchandani said. "It's not like the (HOA) board trying to get tough. The people listening are peers who are sympathetic to issues."
Van Dyke Farms also softened the language in its warning letters. "We try to reinforce all the positives instead of saying comply or else," he said.
The approaches seem to be working. When Mulchandani became president in 2004, he inherited more than 100 violations. Today, that number is under 50.
"We just appeal to them to help us spend the association funds in a more productive manner," he said. "Sometimes it's just a matter of listening or talking to a homeowner."
Recently, another family moved into Vizzi's dream home. There are touches of the original owner all over the house on Shoal Creek Place. Over the years, Vizzi added granite countertops, crown molding, travertine flooring, window treatments. "A lot of sweat (went) into that house," he said. "And time."
He said it was the house where he raised his children, now 14 and 18. He said he and his wife planned to live there until it was too much for them to maintain.
Vizzi said he didn't put the house on the market because of the lawsuit. He wanted out of a deed-restricted community.
"Once this is over, they were going to find another reason to hassle me about something," he said. "We just want to be done."
He has bought 2.5 acres of lakefront property off Ehrlich and Hutchison roads. There, he said, "we can do what we want."
Reach Rodney Thrash at [email protected] or (813) 269-5303.