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Cleaning up a community

What always frustrated Bonnie Behnke when she sat on the Wellington homeowner board was the high number of renters.

Renters had no stake in the neighborhood's property values, and many of the owners lived out of state, she said. "They simply want to collect rent on their investment properties."

Things have only gotten worse in Wellington since she left the board in 1998.

Today, renters far outnumber the owners of the 196 townhomes. The wood on many of the buildings is deteriorating. The owners are not repainting the aging homes. And when they do, some are using colors that don't conform with neighboring units.

Boats and recreational vehicles are commonly parked in front of the homes. The streets and sidewalks are littered with trash. Junk cars sit outside the homes. And some residents are repairing cars right out in their driveways.

"I'm tired of being embarrassed of where I live," Behnke said. "I don't like the feeling of being embarrassed when my family and friends come to visit and I've got toilets and stoves sitting on driveways waiting for someone to pick them up."

Abandoned the board

It's hard to believe this neighborhood is part of Carrollwood Village, a spick-and-span community with homes starting around $200,000 and a long reputation for strictly enforcing deed restrictions.

But Wellington, which is in Carrollwood Village Phase III, lost its ability to enforce deed restrictions about five years ago when homeowners abandoned the board and did not renew its corporate charter.

"Wellington is part of Phase III. However, the internal operation of Wellington is handled by the Wellington Homeowners Association because it's a townhome association," said Dan Ruskiewicz, the community's property manager.

Now a group of homeowners in Wellington want to re-establish their homeowner association.

It won't be easy.

Deed restriction covenants in Wellington were good only for 20 years and expired in 2001. So, even if homeowners were to reincorporate the homeowner association, they would need an unlikely 100 percent approval to reactivate the deed restrictions.

All their hopes may not be lost. Community leaders are researching a loophole that could make deed restrictions possible in Wellington. If that loophole exists, they could reinstate the documents with a simple majority vote.

"I don't know if there is a way around it yet," said Martha Arbelaez, who is leading the Wellington group. "If not, this will be the end of the road."

Located off Lynn Turner Road just north of Essrig Elementary School, Wellington appeals to some home buyers because it's in the heart of Carrollwood, many of the homes are priced below $100,000, and it's near good schools.

A wooden bridge behind the townhomes provides the only link to the back yards of Carrollwood Village's more expensive homes. Since none of Wellington's main roads lead to Carrollwood Village's more expensive subdivisions, the village is largely unaffected by the problems in Wellington.

While it has shortcomings, Wellington also has advantages.

Michele Gonzalez bought her townhome two years ago for $76,500. She says her mortgage is less than what she paid to rent in a Carrollwood apartment complex. Her 11-year-old son started at Essrig Elementary. Now he attends Ben Hill Middle School.

"I would like to see deed restrictions enforced here to make it more desireable. But it was like this when we moved in," said Gonzalez, a customer service worker at Chase Bank.

"I like it here. If I leave, it would be because of my job, not the neighborhood."

A retired postal worker, 78-year-old Magnolia Williams moved to Wellington 10 years ago from Detroit. She bought her townhome in 1993 for $34,000 "because it was in my money range," she said.

The neighborhood was fine, she said, until they stopped enforcing the rules.

"Now they let everything go. Even cars that are broke with motors on the ground," Williams said. "Some people out here even decorated their boats for Christmas."

Williams said she attended a neighborhood meeting about a year ago to voice her concerns about the future of Wellington. In that meeting she told her neighbors they were living in the "Carrollwood ghetto."

Wellington is largely a blue-collar community. However, its residents come from all walks of life.

They are retirees, divorcees and people looking for a new start. A few of the homeowners have lived in the neighborhood since it was developed in 1981. They say it's a far cry from what it used to be.

Wellington was an enclave for professional couples and mid-level career people. There weren't many children. The neighborhood attracted couples who preferred the small yards that required less upkeep.

County Commissioner Jim Norman and his wife Mearline were among the original owners in Wellington. After a few years they moved to another home in Carrollwood Village and rented the townhome in Wellington. Norman said they sold it last year.

"I thought it would always be a nice place to live because Carrollwood Village would never let it go down," Norman said. "That isn't the scenario that played out."

Norman said the Wellington homeowners at one point accused the builder of using faulty materials, which contributed to the rapid decline of the appearance of the buildings. People started to move out when their confidence was shaken.

"It's sad it happened that way," Norman said.

Audrey Brunner moved to Wellington in 1986 when it was five years old.

"The biggest change came when families moved in," she said.

Brunner said in the late 1980s, investors bought many of the homes. Some people who had previously lived in them moved away, but retained their ownership. But when interest rates escalated, some lost their homes to foreclosures.

The foreclosures resulted in depressed real estate prices and more renters, Brunner said, adding that some landlords rented to large families.

However, the neighborhood was dealt its biggest blow when the four board members who held the homeowner association together scattered without passing the mantle of leadership.

Many of the homeowners had the mistaken idea that Carrollwood Village Phase III would assume the leadership their homeowner association had provided. After all, Wellington homeowners pay $260 a year to Phase III.

Bill West, president of Phase III, said the $260 assessment maintains Wellington's entrance, retention pond and security patrol.

"They've come to us many times in the past," West said. "They think we are their board because they are assessed by Carrollwood Village. It's a strange situation."

More challenges ahead

West said he thinks the Wellington homeowners face more challenges than they might realize.

"It's gone beyond just getting a board (re-established)," he said.

"I'm sure everybody would have to be assessed a few thousand dollars. They've got roofing problems, siding problems and problems with the general appearance with the landscaping. Lots of fences need to be replaced and repaired.

"I really hope they can solve their problems. It would be really great for everybody who lives there."

And Wellington has a new problem. The community's deed restrictions may have already expired. If so, the community may never be able to regain them.

Arbelaez said an attorney the homeowners consulted said their deed documents were valid only for 20 years, which ended in 2001. Arbelaez said the homeowners would have had to vote to extend the deed restrictions before the expiration date. They could not hold a vote since they had no homeowner association.

Arbelaez said their lawyer told them it would take 100 percent of the homeowners voting in favor of the deed restrictions to reinstate them.

Tom Jones, president of the Carrollwood Area Association of Neighbors, has suggested a possible solution to the Wellington residents.

Jones said a loophole in the Florida statutes could reinstate the deed restrictions with a simple majority vote.

Jones said the community he manages, Plantation of Carrollwood, came close to reaching a 30-year expiration date on its deed restrictions. Plantation residents voted recently to extend the deed restrictions another year.

"Based on what I've been told by an attorney who represents our homeowners association, even though Wellington's documents expired 20 years after they were incorporated, their documents provide an automatic extension for up to 30 years," Jones said.

Jones said he was shocked by what he saw when he first visited Wellington.

"I saw television sets in the driveways and inoperable cars," he said. "At one time it was a high-end townhome community. Now it's the type of community that lends itself to slumlords."

_ Tim Grant can be reached at 269-5311 or at grantsptimes.com

Some Wellington subdivision residents are trying to restore the neighborhood's deed restrictions to bring improvements.

Five-year Wellington resident Miquel Estela stands on his driveway in front of his town home talking about his neighborhood as his uncle works on the brakes of a car in the driveway.

Martha Arbelaez, a five-year-resident of the Wellington subdivision in Carrollwood Village is leading the charge to have the neighborhood's expired deed restrictions reinstated.

Magnolia Williams, 78, stands at her front door talking about her Wellington neighborhood that she refers to as the "Carrollwood Ghetto."

The Wellington subdivision off Anderson Road is part of the Carrollwood Village planned development, yet it bears little resemblance to the prestigious manicured community. A lack of deed restrictions has contributed to the neighborhood's deterioration with trashy yards and homes in need of paint and major repairs.

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