VMs Debate Fees and Fines for Homeowners Forgoing Modifications Approval Process

On April 13, Westchase Voting Members heard from their new Hillsborough County Commissioner Harry Cohen.

VMs also debated punitive fines and fees for homeowners undertaking exterior projects without pre-approval from the Modifications Committee and then seeking approval or forgiveness afterwards.

Introducing Cohen, Government Affairs Committee (GAC) Chair Eric Holt stated he hoped Cohen would address the recently overturned one percent transportation sales tax, the county’s pandemic mandates and a recently proposed increase in water rates.

“It’s my pleasure to be here tonight,” Cohen said. “We’re busy,” he said of the county commission. “because Hillsborough County is growing so fast and because it’s such a popular place for people to move.”

Cohen stated the county is struggling with the growth’s strain on infrastructure. He observed that the sales tax, recently ruled unconstitutional by Florida’s Supreme Court, raised hundreds of millions of dollars for transportation and transit, which was not allowed to be spent. “There’s no question that the votes exist on the board right now to put the one cent – not a half cent tax – one cent on the ballot in 2022,” he said. “I supported it last time and I’ll support it this time…Without this money we’ll never catch up with the work we need to do.” Cohen acknowledged it may be tough to pass it again given changed economic circumstances and perhaps some taxpayers’ frustration at paying the tax yet receiving nothing in return.

Turning to the county’s Covid guidelines and mask ordinance, Cohen observed that vaccination numbers are up but so are local Covid case counts, driven by younger folks getting ill. “Because numbers are going up, the board is likely to be cautious about raising the mask mandate.” He added, “What I hear…is July 1 or July 4 is our estimate for the breakthrough to normal.”

Cohen stated he serves on a regional board called Tampa Bay Water, consisting of elected representatives from Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough. He stated the board is struggling to address water supply and infrastructure issues in fast-growing south and southeast Hillsborough. He stated the proposed increases would meet capital and short-term needs. “My expectation is that the four percent increase, which equates to something under $3 per month, is likely to pass.” He said the amount, raising the average water bill from $85 to $89 per month, was still below the average water bill charged by 20 similar jurisdictions.

VM Rick Goldstein (Woodbridge), a GAC member, then requested Cohen’s help. “Our area has been invaded by turkey vultures.” Blaming the population explosion on West Park commercial area’s open garbage bins, Goldstein stated, “They are aggressive. They have challenged little pets and toddlers.” Mentioning he had been challenged by a turkey vulture, he said, “It’s becoming a significant safety issue.” Adding they were causing property damage, he said, “I am asking for your help that code enforcement rides herd on the commercial district there.”

Turning to their agenda, VMs gave their final approval for a Harbor Links/The Estates guideline amendment for roof coatings and their first of two required approvals for a new exterior paint palette for the Townhomes of West Park Village.

WCA President Shawn Yesner, chairing the meeting, then detailed recent challenges with homeowners not following the association’s requirements for pre-approval of exterior changes to homes and yards by the Modifications Committee. He added the association is seeing more homeowners ignoring the committee’s denials while others were simply appealing Modification denials to the Variance Committee, which, after homeowners pay a $150 fee, can only approve appeals based on limited circumstances. Community Association Manager Debbie Sainz added that denied homeowners are turning to neighborhood guidelines amendments, which, in the future, will require a mailing to everyone in the affected neighborhood.

Yesner asked if VMs wanted to put in place a punitive fee for homeowners who undertake work before Modification review or raise the Variance Committee fee, which currently covers the architect. “We’re getting a lot of these that are more beg-forgiveness-rather-than-ask-permission kind of issue.”

The question triggered a lengthy, at times heated discussion among VMs Dawn Gingrich (The Bridges), Goldstein, Jerry Pappa (The Greens), Carl Longnecker (Villas of WPV),  Chris Jones (Abbotsford), Mary Griffin (Single Family Homes of WPV), Charles Stephens (Chelmsford) and WCA Directors Dale Sells and Jim Brinker while two dozen other VMs and residents largely remained silent. While Gingrich opposed embracing more punitive measures, Pappa, Longnecker and Goldstein strongly argued for increasing Variance fees by $500 or $1,000. The rest supported a hybrid approach that treated homeowners who follow the process differently than those who ignore it.

Meanwhile Glencliff’s Gina Coutras stated she didn’t know if she agreed with the punitive approach, arguing instead for better communication about the proper process. “Have we thought about putting something in the World of Westchase?” she said.

Ultimately VM Heather Greeley-Hessefort (Keswick Forest) offered a motion to simply fine homeowners $1,000 when they get a Modifications Committee rejection but undertake the  rejected project anyway. Greeley-Hessefort declined a couple of amendments to increase fines and fees across the modifications/variance process.

While Yesner stated that fines were controlled by state statute but Westchase documents might allow the additional fine, Association Manager Debbie Sainz stated that fine approval was the board’s purview, not VMs’.

Subsequently two VMs stated they were finding the discussion of multiple options of fines and committee fees too convoluted to follow, with Bennington’s Russ Crooks insisting that a simple and written proposal be brought to VMs for consideration. Greeley-Hessefort then withdrew her motion and Yesner committed to discussing the matter with the WCA attorney, who, he said, may advise against any changes.

When Yesner asked VMs if there was anything they wished he take to the board, Gingrich said she wished to ask VMs if they supported the association manager’s use of Google Earth photos to identify violations. Responding that, according to the WCA attorney, use of Google Earth is not an issue, Yesner said, “With that I’m going to ask for a motion to adjourn.”

VMs adjourned at 8:52 p.m.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

The above version of the article corrects the original, which did not accurately capture Heather Greeley-Hessefort’s motion. The editor regrets the confusion and error.

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