BROOKRIDGE — The large blue-and-white sign at the entrance to this sprawling community of 2,433 doublewide manufactured homes in central Hernando County advertises it as "a retirement concept."
What that means is open to interpretation.
But one thing is clear: Never has it meant that Brookridge is a 55-and-older community.
Earlier this year, Brookridge residents began casting ballots on an age-restriction measure that would alter who is and is not allowed to move into the community. In early March, it passed overwhelmingly, with more than 77 percent of the property owners who voted — 1,377 — approving. On April 5, it took effect.
With little fanfare, the amendment was recorded in Hernando County records. New signs were put up. The description at the top of the community newsletter was updated.
It was a quiet ending to a years-long effort to convert Brookridge, which opened in 1973, into a 55-and-older community — a move that has strongly, and sometimes bitterly, divided residents.
Earl Shockley, 86, has been coming to Brookridge for the winter from his home in Chicago for more than 10 years.
He was one of the 404 homeowners who voted against the measure.
"I'm just against discrimination," Shockley said Thursday outside his home. "Period."
Janet McGibbon, 77, a resident since 2005, said she, too, is deeply disappointed in the change.
She feels it is going to devalue her property by shrinking the pool of potential buyers.
But more than that, she thinks it's a shame that there won't be as many young people around.
"I think they help keep you going," she said.
Even before the vote, McGibbon had a nickname for Brookridge: the dead zone.
"All you see are fire trucks coming in, followed by an ambulance," she said. "It's like moving into the dead zone because you're going to end up dead in here."
Residents on the other side of the issue feel just as strongly.
Arline Hagenbruch, 77, said the change was a long time coming.
"I'm just thrilled to death," she said. "And my husband is, too."
Hagenbruch has lived in Brookridge roughly 20 years.
When she first moved in with her husband, the community was pitched as 55-and-older. When she discovered otherwise, she felt as if she had been sold a bill of goods.
"We were both very, very disappointed and disgusted," she said.
Like many other residents, Hagenbruch said she likes the idea of living in a 55-and-older community.
"It's not that I don't like kids," she said. "I don't like brats."
Most residents cite similar beliefs in support of the 55-and-older measure:
• There's nothing in the community especially for children — no activities, playground equipment or anything of that nature.
• Young families tend to do a worse job of taking care of their property and lawns.
• Young folks also do not attend community functions as often.
• Younger people are more likely to get in trouble and misbehave.
Resident Bruce Gethen agrees that young and old just don't make for a good mix of people.
"I'm a senior now," the 85-year-old said. "It's someone else's turn to handle the kids."
He, like others, said younger people tend to bring more problems with them. And, there's the issue of property upkeep.
"The families with kids do not maintain their homes to the degree that retired folks do," he said.
The 55-and-older rule will not affect anyone who is already living in Brookridge; they're grandfathered in, said general manager Ray Geroux.
And people under 55 will still be able to move into the community as long as they're living with someone who is over, Geroux said. People who inherit homes may also move in, regardless of age.
It will only stop people from moving in if nobody in the home is 55 or older.
Currently, about 85 percent of Brookridge's homes have at least one person who is 55 or older. Geroux believes that number will gradually climb.
"The population has always seemed to have wanted (the 55-and-older rule)," said Geroux. "I believe, based on the majority of the feelings, it's a good thing."
Brookridge is no stranger to conflicts over age.
Last fall, the community decided to lock a back gate that was used by roughly 50 students living in the community to get to and from school. The property owners association initially hung a sign reading: "The rear gate will no longer be open for school children."
After a public backlash, they kept it open — with an added electronic gate.
This was not the first time the community had tried to become 55-and-older.
In 1988, residents briefly voted in the age restriction before a group of builders and developers sued the property owners association and won, preventing the association from enforcing the restriction.
The vote and court case generated heated debate, quite similar to the discussion of recent months.
"I think having the young around keeps old people young," said resident Muray Welsh in an April 1988 article in the Hernando Times.
On the other side of the issue was snowbird Bob Hoyle, who had this to say about kids living in Brookridge: "They lack discipline. They get on your lot. You tell them to get off, and they stick out their tongues."
Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432.