Inside Cory Lake Isles' Beach Club meeting house last week, trouble was tainting a place billed as paradise.
Homeowners lined up to voice their complaints as the Cory Lakes developer stared back with pursed lips. The four-hour struggle ended with the developer shouting, "This meeting is adjourned!" and several residents walking out in disgust. One woman left in tears.
This is what happens when a community is ruled under one man for 17 years. Residents want more control of how their community development district taxes are spent, and now the issue has reached a boiling point.
Some viewed the bickering as a sign of a neighborhood in turmoil.
Others saw it as a change for the better, an indication that Cory Lake's days of total developer control might finally be numbered.
"I think we made great progress here today," said John Daugirda, who independently supervises Cory Lake Isles' CDD, as well as others in New Tampa.
"It's a life cycle of a community that's evolving. There's active community involvement now, and that's good."
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Where Cory Lake Isles developer Gene Thomason sees exotic landscaping and hand-laid brick roads, many homeowners see overgrown brush and stained sidewalks. Where Thomason and his appointed taxing district board see shortfalls in the upcoming fiscal year, the taxpaying residents see a budget lacking detail and explanation.
The frustration and confusion has brewed in the exclusive 1,000-home subdivision for 17 years, only to be met by one conclusion: Thomason is the one in control.
Thomason, 63, has long been revered as a shrewd businessman who took advantage of the little-understood setup of community development districts, which act as miniature city governments and collect taxes to pay for bond debt and amenities within the development.
Most CDDs are under developer control for six years or until the community is built out, and then the homeowners take over.
But because Cory Lake Isles homes have sold slowly, Thomason has remained the CDD president, and his appointees have stayed on the board (two of the members ran unopposed in the last election, but some residents say they were never notified that an election was taking place).
Thomason's CDD board, which includes his son, Cory, and his friends, makes the decisions about how to use the residents' $1,577-per-unit yearly assessments.
Most recently, the board voted to regain control of Cory Lake Isles' $1.2-million operating and maintenance budget, previously handled by the community's homeowners association.
"The (homeowners association) was never intended to be an operating entity," Gene Thomason said.
"A lot of people don't understand that it was only set up originally in case there wasn't a CDD in place."
It was the last straw for the dozens who showed up at the July 18 CDD meeting to complain. One by one, disgruntled homeowners stood up to protest the board's leadership, practices and lack of transparency.
They accused the board of profiting from the homeowners by awarding each other operating and maintenance contracts, among other arrangements. Neither Gene nor Cory Thomason returned calls from the Times in time for publication.
"So many people are fed up with the good ol' boy network," said homeowner Ron Fitzgerald. "Those that don't have power here are silenced."
However, Cory Lake Isles' power structure might finally be changing in the next couple of years. In the November 2008 elections, homeowners will be able to run against current board members.
"It's a community undergoing some changes," Daugirda said. "It's all going to work itself out."
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As one homeowner in last week's CDD meeting pointed out: It all boils down to property values.
Most people living in Cory Lake Isles wouldn't care who ran the community if they felt like they were getting the most out of their extra taxes and fees.
More than 100 homeowners recently sent letters objecting to the CDD's intent to control the operating and maintenance budget, and others stood up and gave three-minute pleas to make changes.
They wanted a service agreement in place and more details on the community's budget. They wanted more accountability and fewer Thomasons on the CDD board.
They complained that the fees were some of the highest in the area, yet Cory Lake Isles lacks amenities such as swimming pools or parks, which other communities have.
They also don't like the negative publicity the community has received from Thomason's questionable practices and the residents' complaints.
"I'd rather be in Hunter's Green," said Spencer Meggs, a Cory Lake Isles resident who used to live in Hunter's Green.
"All of the negative that we're hearing outside of Cory Lake is hurting us. All this arguing and bickering is not good."
Thomason, who sat at the front of the room and was holding his head in his hands just before the meeting adjourned, looked like he agreed.
Emily Nipps can be reached at (813) 269-5313 or email@example.com.