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  1. Real Estate

Romano: Intrigue behind all those manicured lawns

An aerial view of Venetian Isles in St. Petersburg. Photo by Venetian Isles resident Elizabeth Funk.
An aerial view of Venetian Isles in St. Petersburg. Photo by Venetian Isles resident Elizabeth Funk.
Published Jun. 20, 2018

I've always thought homeowners associations had a lot in common with cops.

People love to complain about them and often accuse them of abusing their power. And yet as soon as a neighbor paints his house a hot shade of fuchsia, you're screaming for the HOA to rescue you.

Which brings me to the manicured entrance to Venetian Isles. If you're not familiar with it, Venetian Isles is an upscale neighborhood of about 525 waterfront homes in St. Petersburg.

It's a deed-restricted community, and it has a voluntary homeowners association. For the better part of 50 years, things seem to have worked well under that kind of laid-back power structure.

But behind every closed door there is a story to tell, and lately the secrets have been spilling out of Venetian Isles.

The leaders of the HOA say not enough people are volunteering, and so they are exploring the possibility of hiring a property manager and polling members to gauge interest in becoming a mandatory organization. Meanwhile, some residents say the HOA has gone overboard with nitpicky complaints, and they are fearful of imbuing the association with even more power.

At its heart, this is a simple neighborhood dispute, and the details are probably best kept among themselves. But I can't help but think it also involves this larger question of the law:

How much control do you have over your own property?

Make no mistake, if you buy into a neighborhood with an existing mandatory home­owners association, then you're agreeing to abide by those conditions.

But is it fair for a neighborhood to change that ruling authority once you've bought in?

"A lot of the people who bought here did so because it had a voluntary association, which meant a little more leeway and not as much control,'' said Cindy Oatess, a Realtor who lives in Venetian Isles. "That was one of the big selling points.''

Now that word has spread about the possibility of the neighborhood adopting a mandatory HOA, Oatess said she is worried about a dip in property values.

"I can't scientifically prove that, but all of the negative talk is taking a toll,'' Oatess said. "I talk to fellow Realtors, and everyone knows what's going on. They're steering clients away until it's resolved.''

Odds are, this isn't about dues.

The voluntary cost for membership is $120 a year and about 60 percent of the homeowners are paying. With houses that typically sell for $500,000 and up, it's hard to imagine anyone sees a $10 per month fee as a hindrance. Even if a property management group is hired, the increase in fees would not likely be onerous.

Instead, this appears to be about power. And fear.

Connie Davies is an attorney who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, and she is concerned that state statutes provide very little oversight once a neighborhood agrees to be governed under a mandatory HOA. She points to stories such as the Riverview couple who nearly lost their home last year after miscommunication about a late payment that led to fines, a lien and an auction.

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"It's not a question of money,'' Davies said. "I just lost confidence in how they were conducting business. And now they want to change the nature of the contract in place when we each bought here.''

Homeowners association president Rich Scanlon says the complaints are limited to a small number of residents, and there is nothing nefarious about seeking to change the association's status.

He said many HOA board members have been doing the work for years and are looking to slow down. Without more volunteers stepping up, a property management company might be needed. And that will cost more money, which means making dues mandatory might be necessary.

"We're not trying to do anything heavy-handed,'' he said. "The issue is we have about 360 people who are paying dues and expecting us to enforce the deed restrictions and keep the neighborhood looking nice. If those people complaining would just volunteer about 20 hours a year, then we'd be in much better shape.''

And so it goes.

I agree with Davies that the state has given HOAs, in some ways, unfettered power. In the great majority of situations, that's not a problem. But there are times when that power is used in reckless and dangerous ways.

And yet I live in a community with a mandatory HOA, and I appreciate the board's diligence in keeping the neighborhood in good shape.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to power wash my driveway.

The HOA just gave me a final warning.

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