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Tampa Bay condo owners say their association is a 'shill' for a billionaire real estate company

Lansbrook Village, a 774-unit condominium community in East Lake.
Lansbrook Village, a 774-unit condominium community in East Lake.
Published Jul. 29

EAST LAKE — Condo owners in Lansbrook Village are suing their association, alleging it is a "shill'' for a billionaire real estate company that is trying to force them to sell so it can convert all 774 units to rentals.

In the action filed Monday in Pinellas Circuit Court, Deborah Berger and Sylvia Cousins seek to void a 2015 amendment to the condo rules that would make it easier for the Carroll Organization to terminate the condominium. As an alternative, they want the Carroll-controlled association to be bound by a 2017 state law that gives minority owners like themselves more protection against forced sales at below-market prices.

"The Carroll Organization, with the association as its shill, has used the 2015 amendment as a springboard to engage in a pernicious scheme to deflated artificially the prices at which units are being sold in Lansbrook Village,'' Berger and Cousins allege.

The two women are among hundreds of Tampa Bay condo owners battling "bulk owners'' who are buying up units with the goal of turning them into lucrative rentals. The bulk owners have taken advantage of a 2007 state law that said the approval of just 80 percent of unit owners — not 100 percent, as before — was needed to terminate a condominium association. The law's original intent was to keep hurricane- or fire-damaged condos from becoming derelict eyesores.

READ MORE: How a billion-dollar company could use a Florida law to force these Tampa Bay seniors out of their condos

In 2015, concerned at how the law was being used, the Florida Legislature made two key changes: A termination plan could be defeated if 10 percent of owners objected. If a condominium was terminated, the bulk owner had to pay all other owners at least 100 percent of the fair market value of their units.

Just before the changes took effect in July 2015, the Carroll-controlled association amended Lansbrook's condo rules to allow termination if 80 percent of owners agreed. By that point, Carrolll owned more than 500 units.

After Berger, Cousins and some other minority owners publicly challenged the amendment to the condo rules, the association sued them and asked a judge to declare it valid. The case has dragged on for four years, resulting in Monday's counterclaim in which Berger and Cousins charge that the association — registered as a non-profit — is working on behalf of a for-profit company and against the interests of minority owners.

Nowhere in state law "is it contemplated that a condominium association could be used as a tool to aid and abet the plan of a bulk owner to terminate a condominium, particularly under circumstances such as these,'' the counterclaim says. It also alleges that the Carroll-controlled association is forcing the minority owners to partly fund its legal fees, which have amounted to more than $300,000 since 2015, condo records show.

In 2017, providing more protection for minority owners, the Legislature tweaked the law again to say that a condominium termination plan could be defeated if 5 percent of owners objected. Minority owners who bought their units from the original developer must receive the same amount they paid; other owners get fair market value, which often is far less than what they paid.

READ MORE: Condo owners need protections from deep-pocket buyers | Editorial

Monday's counterclaim says there is virtually no "far market'' for Lansbrook units because the Carroll Organization through its affiliates is the only buyer. An attorney for the condo association did not return a call for comment.

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

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