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CDD Supervisors Approve Harbor Links’ Streetlight Conversion; Stonebridge Homeowners Voice Concerns

The June 4 meeting of the Westchase Community Development District (CDD) saw resolution of a years-long process to address a Westchase neighborhood’s leaking gas lights and attendance by a number of Stonebridge residents concerned over nearby developments that could significantly impact them.

After CDD Engineer Tonja Stewart updated supervisors about erosion and encroachment issues in a small West Park Village retention pond, supervisors turned to the meeting’s two major topics: the impact that the development of two parcels of land may have on adjacent Stonebridge and potential capital improvements for this year and next year’s budget.

The meeting also saw supervisors vote to move forward with a bid to convert Harbor Links/The Estates gas street lights to LED lamps.

Stonebridge residents turned out to discuss two parcels of land – one to the neighborhood’s north, the other to the east and northeast of them. Referring to the property formerly owned by John Bailey, CDD Chair Mark Ragusa stated he had been contacted by an attorney who purchased the parcel from Tiger Investment Group, Inc., a subsidiary of Florida Capital Bank. The bank had previously requested access to the parcel through Stonebridge’s gates to build 20 townhomes there.

Access to the parcel through Stonebridge was the subject of litigation in 2005 by then owner John Bailey. Through that suit’s settlement, which cost residents of the then CDD East nearly $40,000 in legal bills, Bailey won access through Stonebridge based on a then existing easement at the end of Bridgeton Drive. In turn, he agreed to bind his home purchasers to contributing to Stonebridge’s road and gate maintenance costs. A five-year time limit on developing the parcel, however, passed as the result of the real estate downturn and the easement terminated.

Ragusa stated he had discussed the parcel with its current owner and the individual expressed a willingness to let the Westchase CDD annex it, making it subject to assessments that could help cover Stonebridge’s road and gate maintenance costs – provided that owners of the planned 20 townhomes could access the parcel through Stonebridge’s gate. The owner also stated that, in return, he’d allow current Stonebridge’s owners access to a planned lake clubhouse and the new development’s pool. (Stonebridge also has its own pool.) 

Addressing the proposed annexation, CDD Attorney Erin McCormick stated, “Unfortunately it would not be a very easy process.” McCormick stated the boundary change would require state approval, incurring significant costs and potentially taking eight months or more. McCormick, however, stated a legal agreement could be drawn up binding the new homeowners to paying assessments to cover maintenance costs, but these funds could not be collected by the county as current CDD assessments are.

Nearly all Stonebridge homeowners who spoke, however, expressed little willingness to entertain any compromise that would grant access.

Stonebridge HOA Vice President Joan Knast questioned the owner’s motives. “Is this just a way to skirt issues and just get access to our street?” she stated. “What happens if the development fails?”

Knast also questioned who would pay to force the properties to maintain Westchase standards. (The parcel also lies outside the boundaries of the Westchase Community Association and Stonebridge’s HOA.)

Ragusa emphasized that this discussion with the owner was congenial. Of the offer, Ragusa responded, “It certainly is a way to end or avoid potential litigation.”

Stonebridge’s Raymond Kozlowski, however, argued that the 20 proposed townhomes would add to traffic congestion on Montague Street, which often gets backed up during Davidsen Middle School’s arrival and dismissal times. “They’re changing the quality of life for 66 residents,” he stated. [Editor’s note: Stonebridge consists of 33 duplexes with 66 units total. The likely number of residents is higher.] Kozlowski inquired why the owner couldn’t access the parcel from Sheldon Road instead.

The remark prompted another resident to point out the parcel could be more easily accessed through Promise Lane, a private road that abuts the undeveloped property and accesses Sheldon Road through Sunset Lake Drive. She argued that, according the county records, Bridgeton Drive through Stonebridge is also private, putting the roads on equal footing. Pointing out that Promise Drive has fewer units on it, the resident argued that a judge would see that access through that road would impact fewer people.

CDD Supervisor Brian Ross, an attorney who works in legal mediation, however, cautioned residents that everyone enters lawsuits believing they have strong cases. “There’s the uncertainty you might lose,” he warned. Hinting at the worst outcome, which would be that Stonebridge would be forced to grant access through its gates and road without recouping any maintenance costs, Ross asked, “Do you want to roll the dice?”

Stonebridge HOA President Davis Bullard then spoke. While he took no position, he stated he was gathering a petition expressing owners’ safety concerns over granting the access request. When Bullard requested a history of the matter and the reason why the CDD East settled the 2005 litigation granting access, Ragusa stated, “That ended a dispute that had great uncertainty.” Ragusa tried to reassure residents, however, that the board was not taking the issues lightly. “We understand your sensitivities.”

Knast, however, argued that a judge would likely see that access through Promise Drive would be more logical and less complicated, “I’m willing to fight,” she said.

Cautioning Knast, Ragusa hinted at another rationale behind the CDD East’s agreeing to settle the suit in 2005. “There is a difference between our street and Promise. I’ll leave it at that.”

Ross, who agreed to sit down with the parcel’s owner, added, “I think there are certain benefits to having that property in the Westchase CDD.” Should supervisors also decide it was in the district’s interest to avoid litigation, Ross also suggested that Stonebridge’s homeowners would still be able to hire their own representation to fight the matter. 

The observation did not sit well with Kozlowski, who raised his voice. “You’re passing the buck,” he charged. After further criticism, he also asked why Stonebridge’s Bullard would not be invited to a potential meeting between Ross and the landowner.

Ross, however, countered, “I don’t think it would be wise.”

Kozlowski’s manner and tone did not sit well with CDD Supervisor Greg Chesney, who, as former chair of the CDD East, participated in all discussions related to the 2005 settlement. Clearly annoyed, Chesney stated, “For people looking for help, you’re being very abrasive.”

Kozlowski shot back, “Maybe you should try to help us rather than sit there on your throne.”

Chesney rose. “I’m going to leave until they’re gone,” he stated. “This is ridiculous.”

Chesney then departed the room until the topic changed. Ragusa, however, defended the past board’s handling of the 2005 civil suit and the way it would handle the current request. “I’ve never seen this board make a wrong decision,” he stated.

When Kozlowski continued, stating he would have the right to speak his mind at any county meeting, Ragusa countered, “If you were at a county meeting, the sheriff’s deputy would have removed you already.”

Ragusa, however, also tried to reassure the other Stonebridge residents who were present. “You need to understand we are working for you.” He added, “We’re not trying to stick you with anything.”

Discussion then switched to the second parcel, which McCormick described as being just over 60 acres and sitting north of Stonebridge and east of Sturbridge. Its owner has requested changes with Hillsborough County that would permit 220 multifamily units, accessed off Sheldon Road through Sunset Lake Drive. The parcel has seen previous efforts to zone it for development, including allowing recreational boating on its large 25-acre lake (fronting The Bridges’ homes) and a walking path around the lake.

Addressing the parcel, Knast said she had spoken to the developer’s representative, who stated there were no plans for the walking path around the lake. Knast, however, expressed concern about the impact the development could have on Montague Street traffic if it were zoned for Davidsen Middle School.

McCormick added that county’s screening requirements for the development, unless waived, could impede current backyard views of the lake from The Bridges’ homes.

While the district took no position on the matter prior to the county’s scheduled June 24 zoning board meeting, supervisors requested that CDD Engineer Tonja Stewart study the proposed development to determine if it posed any adverse affects on the community.

Supervisors then turned their discussion to a number of motions, proposed by Ross, regarding staff salaries and capital expenditures the board previously discussed in May. That discussion focused on whether to include funds for the projects in the district’s 2014 budget, beginning in October, or fund them out of the district’s current reserves, which have grown by $260,000 in just the past three years.

Addressing a proposed sand volleyball court, estimated to cost $16,500, Ross proposed tabling further discussion of it until the Westchase Recreation Center’s gymnasium is complete and the board can ascertain whether it provides appropriate volleyball facilities for residents. That motion passed unanimously.

Ross’ motion to increase Field Manager Doug Mays’ and Office Manager Sonny Whyte’s salaries by eight percent triggered significant discussion. While District Manager Andy Mendenhall stated Westchase staff currently receives the highest salaries of any comparable employees in districts he manages, both employees have received stellar reviews from supervisors and Mendenhall described Mays as the best field manager in all his districts. Mays, moreover, has received no salary increase in two years while Whyte has seen cost-of-living adjustments. While Supervisor Chesney preferred to keep salaries at current levels but increase budgeted amounts for bonuses, supervisors ultimately compromised, voting 4-1, with Chesney opposed, to grant an eight percent increase to Mays and a five percent increase for Whyte. Explaining his vote, Chesney stated he felt staff would have received greater compensation with his approach.

Passing unanimously was also Ross’ motion to purchase a decorative fountain for the large West Park Village lake sitting on the north side of Linebaugh Avenue near Westchase’s east entrance. The fountain is estimated to cost a total of $22,500, which will be taken from reserves.

Also gaining unanimous support was Ross’ motion to spend up to $20,000 for the purchase of a wood chipper to mulch tree and hedge clippings rather than take them to the Waste Transfer Station on Linebaugh Avenue.

While Ross also moved to approve plans to improve and renovate the current splash fountain in the West Park Village Town Center, two supervisors expressed a desire to look through the pricing of options more closely. Ross’ amended motion that staff bring a finalized contract consistent with supervisors’ requests to the July 9 meeting also passed unanimously. That project is expected to cost approximately $100,000, which supervisors appear likely to cover with the $260,000 in funds added to reserves in recent years.

Ross also tried to resolve the board’s position on signage. A majority of supervisors have expressed support for ending the proliferation of banners advertising community events on Westchase rights of way. Many, Ross stated, are unreadable; others are dirty. One proposed solution was to erect large LED signs to replace them. Staff’s initial estimate for simple signs was $46,000. With supervisors stating they lacked enough information about LED signs, their pricing and their potential placement, they ultimately elected to leave funds in the 2014 budget for their possible purchase.

None of Ross’ motions, however, directly addressed the $100,000 included in the 2014 draft budget for capital improvements. Supervisors may return to that line item at their July meeting. The public meeting to discuss the district’s budget will be held Aug. 6 at the Westchase Community Association’s (WCA) office building.

In other major action, supervisors voted to move forward with a project that will convert Harbor Links/The Estates gas streetlights to LED lights. Nancy Sells, the neighborhood’s voting member, resident Dixie Mills, and Ragusa, an Estates resident, weighed in regarding resident sentiments about the project. Sells acknowledged only 17 of 172 homeowners responded to her inquiry gauging support for moving forward. All three, however, stated that while they had encountered residents who had questions about its financing, no resident had expressed opposition to the project. Supervisors ultimately voted unanimously to begin the $340,000 conversion.

Supervisors then turned to its financing. The neighborhood has $100,000 in reserve for the lights. Rather than borrow the balance of the funds from a bank and pay interest, however, Supervisor Greg Chesney suggested the neighborhood borrow from the district’s fund balance and pay it back over three years, finishing in 2017. The neighborhood can also apply savings from natural gas purchases towards repayment, thus lowering the increase in assessments to cover the loan in 2015-2017. Chesney’s financing proposal passed unanimously.

In other actions:

Supervisors delayed offering approval to a homeowner of Harbor Links/The Estates to replace his/her driveway with pavers. The request came before supervisors because all sidewalks and rights of way (the land between sidewalks and streets) are not actually owned by Westchase homeowners. In gated communities, the sidewalks and rights of way are generally owned by the CDD. In non-gated Westchase neighborhoods, they are owned by Hillsborough County. (Westchase’s Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions, however, compels homeowners to maintain the areas to Westchase standards.) In response to the request, CDD Attorney McCormick suggested that supervisors require gated communities’ homeowners who wish to install pavers sign an agreement acknowledging that the homeowners will be responsible for all maintenance on the CDD-owned portion of the driveway. Homeowners would also have to cover their repair and replacement should the CDD have to excavate it. Supervisor Ragusa, however, stated he’d prefer a county-filed document whose requirements would transfer with the sale of the property. After McCormick cited downsides to the approach, she committed to working on the issue more and supervisors ended the discussion with no action.

Supervisor Brian Ross updated the board on his investigation of potential district land purchases and supervisors asked him to consult with a bank that recently acquired a property of interest through foreclosure.

Supervisors adjourned at roughly 7:30 p.m. The next meeting of the CDD is July 9 at 4 p.m. at the WCA office building on Parley Drive.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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