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CDD Again Declines Access to Adjacent Land Through Gated Stonebridge

The March 5 meeting of the Westchase CDD saw a bank that owns property at the back of Stonebridge again request that it be granted access to it through that gated neighborhood.

Shelli Bushway, Vice President of Tiger Investment Group, Inc., a subsidiary of Florida Capital Bank, appealed to supervisors for access at the March session.

Late in 2012 Florida Capital Bank, the owner of the 5.5 acre parcel that lies to the west and northwest of Stonebridge, sent its first request by letter.  Supervisors, however, elected not to respond, triggering Bushway’s visit.

The CDD owns and maintains Stonebridge’s road and gates and assesses its homeowners for their maintenance.

Reviewing the history of an expired access easement at the end of Bridgeton Drive (See extended explanation below.), Bushway acknowledged that the previous owner’s failure to meet the requirements of a legal suit’s settlement over the easement had resulted in its termination. She argued, however, that a parcel cannot be landlocked under the law and the bank would likely succeed in getting a court to order the CDD to allow access through Stonebridge. Stating that her attorney had advised a new lawsuit would likely cost the district $5,000, Bushway offered that sum in exchange for access along a the gated portion of Bridgeton Drive.

Bushway also acknowledged her bank had acquired the parcel through foreclosure and stated, “We’re just a little bank that does the right thing.” She added, “We’re appealing to you to let us have access again.”

Telling Bushway her cost estimate for the suit was significantly in error (the previous 2007 CDD suit over the past easement cost the district approximately $40,000), CDD Chair Mark Rugasa, asked Bushway why the district would simply grant an easement they had previously fought to remove on behalf of Stonebridge. “I think we would anger a lot of residents in that community if we were to agree with what you wanted us to do.”

Ragusa’s subsequent comments, however, left open one avenue of possible compromise. Citing a letter from Bushway that stated she had a possible buyer interested in building a single home on the property, Ragusa stated that granting access to owners of a single home – provided the property could not be subdivided in the future – would be an easier sell to Stonebridge than the existing permit, which allows nearly two dozen townhomes.

While supervisors ultimately took no action to grant any access to the property, Supervisors Brian Ross and Ragusa wondered at the meeting’s conclusion if the board should consider purchasing the property, using it as additional recreational space accessed by pedestrian path from Linebaugh Avenue.

Prior to their conversation with Bushway, supervisors proved amenable to a different request, this time from a number of homeowners along Cavendish Drive in West Park Village. Speaking on behalf of almost 20 residents in attendance, Richard Johnson stated he had collected a petition supporting a request that the district install a fountain in the large retention pond between Cavendish Drive and Linebaugh Avenue. Assured that Johnson heard no opposition from homeowners along the road, supervisors expressed enthusiasm for the idea, including the possible addition of fountains in other ponds. Stating that funds for the items might have to be budgeted for next fiscal year, beginning in October 2013, they requested CDD staff explore the cost for their purchase and installation.

The meeting also saw a presentation by an Alonso High School service organization called Dreaming of That Smile (DOTS). Addressing supervisors were Alonso teacher Kevin Norton, the club sponsor, and three of its members. Student Lindsey Wright stated, “Westchase has given us a safe place to call home.” She added, “We just want to give back a small token of what Westchase has given to us.”

Student Vicki Mendez explained the group’s objective. “The idea we came up with was a reading garden.” Mendez stated her service group was requesting a parcel of land approximately 40 by 50 feet in size. DOTS, she stated, would hold fund-raisers to help create the space.

While supervisors strongly praised the idea and the professionalism with which it was presented, they made the suggestion – given the significant amenities Westchase already has – that the students work to build a reading garden in a community with greater needs. Ragusa, however, asked the group to speak to CDD staff if they are unable to find a good location elsewhere.

Concluding major discussion, supervisors learned that the district would likely receive only one bid for retrofitting Harbor Links/The Estates gas street lights with LED bulbs. Supervisors ultimately agreed to halt the existing bid process. Further, Chair Ragusa, a resident of that neighborhood, suggested the board consider revamping the bid specifications to permit bidders to completely replace the lamp heads (the current bid keeps the existing heads, simply retrofitting the internal mechanism), provided they appear similar to current lights. To that end, supervisors will review new bid specifications at their April meeting, when they may vote to send them out for bid again.

Supervisors adjourned at 5:40 p.m.

A History of Stonebridge Access Issue

The latest request by Tiger Investment Group, a subsidiary of Florida Capital Bank, that it be allowed to access a 5.5 acre parcel of land through Stonebridge’s gates and road represents a new chapter in a struggle to keep that neighborhood’s gates intact. In 1997 family members of the original owners of the ranch that became Westchase negotiated an easement with the Westchase developer at the end of Bridgeton Drive for access to the landlocked parcel still owned by Charles and Betty Thomas. That parcel only has two logical access points – Bridgeton Drive through Stonebridge or Promise Drive, a privately owned road with access to Sheldon Road via Lake Sunset Drive. Because of the existence of the easement, the difficulty of gaining permission to use Promise Drive and the cachet of selling property accessed through Westchase, owners of the land have sought access through Stonebridge.

While the Thomas family never developed the parcel, they eventually sold it to a developer named John Bailey, who demanded access through Stonebridge in 2005 to develop a number of homes on the land. His demand was based on a then existing easement at the end of Bridgeton that granted the land parcel’s owner access. That easement was even acknowledged within Stonebridge’s own Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (CCRs). Bailey’s demand, vehemently opposed by the Stonebridge HOA at the time and not granted, resulted in lawsuit against the district. Costing residents approximately $40,000, the suit was ultimately settled by the parties. The settlement agreement granted Bailey access; Bailey also won the right to build approximately 22 townhomes on the site. The agreement, however, came with a contingency to which Bailey agreed: if an additional access easement across TECO-owned land, necessary to reach the parcel, wasn’t obtained within five years, the existing easement would be completely terminated.

Stonebridge was spared by the bursting of the housing bubble. Bailey unloaded the land to a developer called Westchase Cityhomes, which eventually lost the land to foreclosure to Tiger Investment Group. In April 2012 the deadline for acquiring the TECO easement occurred and the district filed for its removal.

Thus, while Tiger Investment Group recently did acquire the access agreement from TECO, they no longer have a legal claim based on the expired easement to demand access through Stonebridge. Because the law forbids the landlocking of any parcel, however, the owner still can ask a court to grant them access to the land. For now, the termination of the easement may remove the strongest argument for demanding access through an existing gated community, perhaps putting Stonebridge and the district on more equal footing with access through Promise Drive.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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