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Innisbrook: troubled paradise

At the Westin Innisbrook Resort, scenes of pastoral perfection greet the casual visitor. Red, orange and yellow flowers surround manicured greens. Golfers chat beneath shade trees. Softly humming golf carts replace the roar of heavy traffic barreling down nearby U.S. 19.

But all is not peaceful in this golfers' paradise, where a chasm bigger than a water hazard has opened between two camps of residents.

On one side stands the Innisbrook Condominium Association, made up of residents who own condominium units at the resort. Last week the group filed a lawsuit against the resort's new owners, alleging that changes made at the 1,000-acre property have run roughshod over the rights of condo owners.

On the opposite side is another group of residents, also members of the Innisbrook Condominium Association. But they oppose the lawsuit, saying the changes made by the resort's new owners will benefit residents.

Although they oppose the lawsuit, they must bear as much of its cost as residents who support it. Unhappy about that prospect, opponents of the lawsuit have consulted their own attorneys, seeking protection.

"If Westin decides to really fight this thing, it could go on for years and the condo association is not going to win, and the condo association members get assessed for the costs," says resident Jack Oberdorf, who worries attorneys' fees could be thousands of dollars per resident. "I'm not in a position to pay that."

But condo association officials maintain that the investments residents have made in their properties over the years are worth defending.

Also worth defending, some indicate, is the lifestyle residents have long enjoyed at the resort. The condo association has opposed the resort's plans to attract more golfers through a special summer golf membership as well as a "two-some card," which allows the card holder and a guest to use Innisbrook facilities between March 1998 and February 1999.

More players could ruin the exclusive atmosphere that was promised to condo owners and could interfere with access to the best of Innisbrook's five golf courses, said Jack Sprague, the association president.

"So far, we're getting tee times. But Innisbrook is now trying to sell two-for-one memberships," Sprague said. "You can imagine if they were successful: They sell 500 memberships for two-for-one, that's 1,000 people that could play. That could start interfering."

Victor Peters, a Canadian who was hired as the condo association's attorney to negotiate a better agreement with Innisbrook, sent a 16-page letter to condo owners March 13 blasting the resort's actions.

"If you bought your apartment primarily for personal use and a "lifestyle,' you have only seen the tip of the iceberg in the changes in that lifestyle," Peters warned condo owners. "As time passes you will see more and more transient "public' play of the courses, your access will become more and more limited and the "culture' of Innisbrook will become more and more diluted."

Sprague says members of his organization tried to negotiate with Innisbrook's owners, but they were ignored.

"Who wants a fight?" Sprague asked. "But if a suit is necessary, I guess that's what we have to do."

"The hostility is killing us'

Fred and Muriel Schwartz began forging friendships at Innisbrook 26 years ago, when they bought a condo there. But some of those friendships went sour in the last few months as residents chose sides in the legal battle.

Fred Schwartz resigned his position on the Innisbrook Condominium Association board this month, partly because of the controversy.

"We love it here, but the hostility is killing us," said Mrs. Schwartz. "We never had that before."

In a perfect year, residents say, three organizations work together to make life at Innisbrook pleasant.

The condominium association, run by a 15-member elected board, collects dues and assessments from condo owners. It uses the money _ about $2.5-million a year, according to its president _ primarily to maintain common areas.

The Lessors' Advisory Committee, run by a nine-member elected board, is the liaison between condo owners and the resort's management. It also makes sure the 938 condominiums that are rented meet Innisbrook standards.

The third player is the resort's owner, which owns everything _ golf courses, restaurants, clubhouses, gift shops _ except the condos.

The parties began bristling shortly after Innisbrook changed hands last summer.

Golf Hosts Inc. developed Innisbrook nearly 30 years ago. In June, Golf Hosts' stock was bought by Starwood Capital Group, a hotel investment company that controls Westin Hotels. The company also controls Golf Trust of America Inc., which is a real-estate investment trust, and Troon Golf, an Arizona-based operator of golf courses.

The new owners, still called Golf Hosts, immediately began making changes by adding more golf courses and creating plans for a water slide pool, health club and spa, restaurants and other additions.

Among the resort's most controversial changes was a plan to draw up a new master lease agreement with condominium owners.

Under the old agreement, condo owners who rent their units to resort visitors got 53 percent of the profits while the resort took 47 percent.

The new agreement charges condo owners fees, so the split is more like 40 percent for the condo owners and 60 percent for the resort. But the resort also agreed to contribute a minimum of $8-million a year to the pool of money generated by renting units, which had not been done before.

The Lessors' Advisory Committee supported the new agreement. But most members of the Innisbrook Condominium Association's board disagreed not only with the proposal but with the way in which it was delivered.

Resort General Manager Michael Welly sent a letter to condo owners in November urging them to back the new agreement, which expires at the end of 2011. Welly's letter said that those who choose to remain under the old agreement might not be able to rent their condos after 2001, when that old agreement expires.

The condominium association countered that condo owners have a right to be part of any rental pool as long as one exists.

The association sent a questionnaire to condo owners asking how many of them had signed the new master lease agreement and how many had done so under pressure from Innisbrook's owners. It also asked how many condo owners were in favor of suing Golf Hosts.

In a letter to the Times, condo association Secretary Warren Erickson said between 65 and 68 percent of the respondents favored litigation. But residents opposed to the lawsuit say the split was more like 50-50.

The Lessor's Advisory Committee conducted its own poll, which indicated only 30 percent of the condo owners wanted to sue Golf Hosts.

The March 13 letter from Peters urged residents to vote for the "pro-condo board" candidates _ those who supported a lawsuit against Innisbrook _ in the upcoming elections.

"There's a pretty unanimous feeling. The people who got elected, their position was known," Sprague said. "It was a mandate" for the lawsuit.

"We had many, many letters and phone calls at our condo office in support of litigation," Sprague said. "It was not a frivolous idea on our part."

Welly, the resort manager, said he suggested that attorneys get together so a lawsuit could be avoided, but the condo association rebuffed his offers.

"I think that's why some of the residents are mad," he said. "They understand we were at the table talking and their representatives weren't."

Is a lawsuit really needed?

Residents opposed to the lawsuit say they are not really sure what the condo association hopes to reap.

Even though the new rental pool gives condo owners a smaller percentage of the profits, the occupancy rates are up this year _ 65 percent compared with 39 percent in 1997 _ and room rates have increased. So owners expect to make more money.

"I don't really care what the percentages are," said Joseph Henrici, chairman of the Lessors' Advisory Committee. "If my check at the end of the year is bigger than it used to be, I'm happy."

Innisbrook resident Ted Barney's brother visited him in February, a busy month at the resort. They played golf four of the five days he was in town and were able to secure tee times by calling a day in advance, Barney said.

"We have less trouble getting on the golf course this year than we ever have," he said. "Any day I want, any time I want, I can get on any course I want."

While the lawsuit alleges that Innisbrook has stripped condo owners of their guaranteed tee times, the lawsuit's opponents say those tee times were never guaranteed in writing but were merely a courtesy.

Even so, Innisbrook has continued to reserve at least 62 tee times each day for condo owners, said resident Bob Head. If four people use each tee time, those times serve 248 golfers a day, he said.

Residents also rave about improvements to the property: new golf cart paths, flowers, double-seeding the courses to keep them lush, even in winter.

The resort's new owners plan to spend about $25-million improving the resort in the next five years, said Welly.

"The only thing we don't have: We're not hand-carried from the cart to the ball," joked Hooper White, a Tarpon Springs resident who rents his resort condo most of the year. "We're really sick about that."

The litigation has created ill will between Innisbrook's owners and those who own condos. But the greater shame is the damage it has done to old friendships among the resort's residents, said Barney.

"We've had such a magnificent time down here," said Barney, who bought a condo 26 years ago. "This lawsuit's very disruptive to the lifestyle because you have groups for the lawsuit and groups against the lawsuit. You have friends that aren't friends now."