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CDD Purchases 5.5 Acre Parcel

Perhaps resolving a long-standing source of potential litigation, the Westchase Community Development District purchased 5.5 acres east of The Bridges and northwest of The Vineyards in October.

The decision represents the first time in Westchase CDD history they have purchased land to add to the district’s holdings.

The purchased parcel, acquired at a price of $217,600, sits to the east of Stonebridge, a gated community. It also borders the back of Westchase Elementary and sits northwest of The Vineyards. The parcel includes the north shoreline of the large lake sitting off Linebaugh Avenue between Westchase Elementary and The Vineyards.

The parcel was the subject of a 2006 lawsuit between then owner John Bailey, Inc., and the then CDD East. In that suit Bailey demanded access to his landlocked parcel in order to build 20 townhomes. That access, however, was to be through gated Stonebridge, whose HOA demanded the district refuse the access request. After spending over $30,000 defending the gate, the CDD East ultimately settled the suit, granting Bailey access with the provisions that he acquire another easement from TECO necessary to develop the land, and that he help cover Stonebridge’s maintenance costs for Bridgeton Drive through Stonebridge. Stonebridge HOA representatives at the time were deeply angered by the settlement. Transcripts of the lawsuit’s closed sessions between CDD East supervisors and their attorney, Eric Adams, revealed Adams had strong doubts that the district would prevail should Bailey’s access request be heard by a judge. Under Florida law, no parcel may be landlocked. Of the two roads adjacent to the parcel, Bridgeton Drive and Promise Drive, the latter is a privately-held road that would have to be expanded for use. In contrast, Bridgeton Drive, due to its development with district issued bonds, legally is a public road wide enough to permit the concurrent passage of two vehicles. Further, an easement at the end of Bridgeton Drive within Stonebridge – one that was acknowledged in Stonebridge’s deed restrictions binding its homeowners – gave access rights to the parcel owner. As part of the settlement, however, Bailey agreed that the easement would terminate in five years should the TECO easement not be acquired.

Stonebridge and the district were ultimately saved by the Florida real estate crash. The Bailey parcel was lost in foreclosure and the easement terminated. When the new owner, Tiger Investment Group, a subsidiary of Florida Capital Bank, approached the district this past summer and requested access through Stonebridge, supervisors again found themselves facing concerns over a new lawsuit and doubts the district could successfully protect Stonebridge’s gates.

Thus, in September, board members authorized CDD Supervisor Brian Ross to negotiate a purchase contract for the land. News the contract had been signed triggered a meeting of the Stonebridge HOA on Sept. 30 (News of that session can be found by clicking here.). Addressing the contract and Ross’ report about the parcel, CDD Chair Ragusa stated, “Your report was outstanding.”

Ross then addressed the contract, which still needed board approval for the acquisition to happen. “I’m in favor of pursuing the land,” he stated. Ross said he wasn’t promoting its purchase to provide a recreational area nor to resolve the Stonebridge access issues. “I was motivated by the fact that this major piece of property should always have been in Westchase,” he said. “It’s the last major piece of [nearby] land.”

Ross added that its acquisition would preserve the appearance of the large lake between Westchase Elementary and The Vineyards. Allowing the parcel to fall into others’ hands, he argued, could open the lake to construction of a large dock, leading to recreational use of the water and destroying its current appearance.

Addressing the contract, CDD Attorney Erin McCormick said that state law governing CDDs placed parameters around land acquisition. Under state law, she said, the district couldn’t simply purchase the land with goal of reselling it to Stonebridge or to another buyer willing to construct only a single family home on the plot. It could also not develop the land itself for resale. The district’s use of the property was limited to recreation, education, mitigation and water management.

At the September session, however, Ragusa addressed a resident’s concern that the property was being acquired simply to protect Stonebridge. “I can’t speak for other supervisors, but I’m not interested in buying a buffer,” he stated, hinting he supported other plans.

At the Oct. 1 meeting, CDD Supervisor Brian Zeigler inquired whether the land could be accessed some other way than through Stonebridge to permit its development into a new Westchase recreational area. Ragusa stated there appeared to be other possible routes of access. The one cited, however, would depend upon cooperation from the Hillsborough County School District. Examining maps of the parcel, supervisors acknowledged that the land purchase did not include any portion of Promise Drive, making access via that road impossible.

Ragusa ultimately backed Ross’ view. Describing it as one of the last parcels in Westchase the district has the ability to acquire, he stated, “Having that land owned by the CDD will benefit residents for years to come.”

Ragusa continued. “I see no downside to this.” He added, “I know what litigation would cost.”

Supervisors then heard from Stonebridge resident Meredith Kovarik, who stated she was authorized to speak on behalf of Stonebridge’s HOA at the meeting.  Kovarik stated, “I’d like to say thank you for the fact that we’ve gotten to this point.”

Kovarik went on to explain that Stonebridge residents, at their Sept. 30 meeting the previous night, had made clear their preferences regarding the parcel. Kovarik stated they were open to granting access through Stonebridge should the land be purchased for construction of a single-family home. She stated her fellow residents also supported recreational use of the parcel provided that vehicular, pedestrian and pet access not go through Stonebridge. 

CDD Supervisor Greg Chesney, however, offered a cautionary note, stating it would be silly to purchase the land and then have to battle residents to access the acreage for recreational use.

Kovarik politely reiterated that Stonebridge residents would not support any use of the parcel that would impact them.

Ragusa then turned to CDD Attorney McCormick. “Who owns the Stonebridge roads?”

“We do,” McCormick responded, referring to the district.

Chesney reiterated that he supported public use of the parcel and stated, if purchased, he wanted nothing implied that the district wouldn’t use the land in the future.

Ragusa then stated, “I have no desire to get into a future conflict with the residents.” He said he was not going to vote to purchase the property with any restrictions Stonebridge’s HOA might desire and added, “This only comes up once in a lifetime.” He concluded, “This is something we need to take advantage of and sweat the details in the future.”

Supervisors ultimately passed a series of unanimous motions approving the purchase contract and authorizing the sale. Ross committed to returning to the Tiger Investment Group to seek an additional discount for an expedited close.

“Brian, thank you. You did a fantastic job,” Ragusa concluded. “Years from now this will be viewed as one of the best things we’ve ever done.”

Supervisors then turned, once again, to discussions about the district’s adoption of an employee handbook. CDD Supervisor Chesney, who reviewed a number of other districts’ handbooks with CDD Manager Andy Mendenhall, stated he had drawn the conclusion that a handbook could make changing employee policies less flexible and stated compiling one that won the support of all five supervisors would be challenging. Chesney added that if the board still wanted a handbook, he would advise hiring an outside entity to draft one. He added, however, that he had concluded that having a series of memorandums of understanding read into the minutes and establishing policy would serve the same purpose as a handbook but would maintain greater flexibility. Chesney then advised supervisors they should pass policies regarding sick and vacation time, benefits provisions and the personal use of vehicles.

Supervisors then returned to previous month’s discussions related to creating a sick time policy. Current district policy lets sick time accrue without limits and pays departing or retiring employees for all banked days. After supervisors weighed in on different preferences, Ross suggested that the district allow employees to use accumulated sick time unchanged until December 2014. At that point, he recommended capping sick time at 20 days and cashing out any days above that. A motion to that effect passed 4-0. (Supervisor Chesney departed the meeting early.)

In other actions:

Supervisors requested CDD Supervisor Greg Chesney return in November with a formal plan and price for the reconfiguration of the sprayers at the West Park Village Town Center spray pad and the installation of lights there. The simplified plan of work, estimated now at $18,000, is aimed at improving the appearance and functionality of the spray pad, which has never operated as originally planned.

Supervisors voted 4-1 to approve a Westchase Community Association-sponsored holiday concert on Dec. 12 on the West Park Village Town Center Green. CDD Supervisor Bob Argus cast the lone vote in opposition because the motion did not require the association to monitor the concert noise levels with a noise meter.

Supervisors ratified a release signed by the CDD chair that settled a $12,827 insurance claim for a truck’s damage to the Greens’ gatehouse.

Supervisors voted unanimously to approve a maintenance agreement at a cost of $175 per quarter for the new pond fountain on Cavendish Drive. That maintenance agreement will also extend the $24,000 fountain’s warranty to three years.

Supervisors approved work to install pavers at the Radcliffe bus stop adjacent to the pocket park at that neighborhood entrance. Field Supervisor Doug Mays stated he had a quote for the work for $1,300 but thought he could get the job done less expensively.

Supervisors unanimously approved a Girl Scout Troop’s request for a one-day lemonade stand at Glencliff Park. Its proceeds would benefit a charity.

Attempting to resolve issues over district maintenance of street lights owned by The Enclave HOA, supervisors declined The Enclave’s suggestion that they simply place a maintenance easement on the lights. Supervisors instead supported keeping district practices consistent. The district only maintains street lights and roads it owns.

CDD supervisors instructed district staff to remove all vegetation planted by Glencliff homeowners on district land surrounding a pond behind their homes.

Supervisors approved the installation of holiday banners on the 12 streetlamps they own in the West Park Village Green Town Center.

Supervisors adjourned at 5:57 p.m.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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