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Third developer takes stab at costly condos

Building is set to begin again at River Cove Landings, even as residents complain of problems and neglect.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 21, 2002


CRYSTAL RIVER -- Tucked behind a bend in Fort Island Trail, a couple of miles west of U.S. 19 and seemingly a world away from the city, River Cove Landings was once a developer's dream.

The roughly 31-acre site was approved for an astonishing 320 condominiums in the 1980s, before growth management laws and the Comprehensive Plan limited coastal development to one home per 40 acres.

Buyers snatched up the first 18 condos on the winding property overlooking the idyllic Crystal River.

And then, somewhere between the 1993 no-name storm and developer Fred Del Guidice's millions in debts, the dream turned into a nightmare.

Del Guidice and the developer before him, Am-Pan Inc., both folded under foreclosure. Common areas fell into disrepair. Of the 10 condos started in 1996, six remain unfinished, unoccupied shells.

It seems building on the coast was more difficult and costly than anyone -- except the environmentalists who fought the project in the 1980s -- anticipated.

"These high-density developments, particularly in the coastal areas, are much more expensive; so typically, unless the developers have very deep pockets, their intent is to get clients on board and reinvesting to keep capital moving," said Gary Maidhof, the county's director of Development Services, who has watched River Cove Landings stumble over the years.

"When these projects slow down or stop, either due to regulatory problems or a drop in sales, oftentimes the financial wherewithal falls apart," he said. "Like a big tower of cards, when the pieces fall apart, the ability to market the project collapses."

Now the third River Cove Landings developer in as many decades, a group of Dutch investors who bought the land at auction for $800,000 in March 2001, is planning a fresh start.

Bulldozers are scheduled to roll in Monday, clearing the way for 17 more condominiums that will wrap around the property's northwestern inlet. The developer plans to replat the eastern half of the property for about 35 single-family homes, all together filling River Cove Landings with just a quarter of the units approved some 20 years ago.

"They want something they can say, "Hey, look at this nice project here,' " said Roland Leduc, the project manager. "They want a fair return on their investment, which they're entitled to, and I hope the people in the park (development) understand that and let them alone to do this."

In just a year, however, Leduc and the Dutch developers have been sued twice by some of their own residents. The suits, which are pending, allege withholding financial records to an alleged land grab that several condo owners say could obstruct their waterfront view and cloud their title.

Leduc, who was also project manager under Del Guidice, dismissed the lawsuits as baseless harassment.

"The people in the park (development) are frustrated, and I don't blame them," Leduc said. "They're frustrated for having to go through two developers who screwed up things bad."

But the residents say they're just trying to protect their own investment in a complex that has been neglected by a series of developers, including the latest one.

Sandi Smith, a 10-year resident, said Leduc has failed to provide financial records showing how the residents' monthly fees are being spent. Each condo owner pays $25 a month for the private sewer plant and $50 for maintaining the common areas, but looking around the complex, Smith said she is wondering where the money goes.

Weeds and anthills have sprouted through the cracks in the tennis court, and one corner of the court has crumbled into a small lake. The screens on the clubhouse windows are torn, and the swimming pool needs thousands of dollars in repairs.

A raised wooden deck, now rotting, slopes precariously toward the pool. Residents used to perch lawn chairs or party buffets on the deck, but have since been warned for safety reasons to stay off.

"We're paying monthly association dues and we'd like to know where it's going," said Smith, one of four residents who sued Leduc and the main developer, Ruud Akkerman, in February.

Leduc said the money from residents, and even more from Akkerman, have paid for repairs to the electronic entrance gate, new pumps for the sewer treatment plant and other maintenance, but that the dues cannot cover all needed improvements at once.

Because most of the proposed units were never built, he said, there are fewer residents to share the bill for the common areas.

In time, he expects, it will cost about $600,000 to bring the complex up to snuff, including repaved roads, a pier, a new tennis court and a refurbished pool, among other improvements.

"People don't realize this is what it's going to cost," Leduc said.

And why haven't residents seen the financial records from the River Cove Master Association?

The group has no records for the time the complex was in liquidation, from November 1999 to March 2001, Leduc said. Requests for more recent records haven't been made to the proper person, the secretary/treasurer, he said, and at any rate the group is not bound by the same records rules as condominium associations.

Not so, Smith replied.

"Our attorney says they have to provide them," she said.

The second lawsuit gets even thornier.

After buying the property, the Dutch developers decided not to build the remaining 42 condominiums proposed for phase 2. They shrank the phase 2 plat around the four occupied and six vacant condos that had been built.

In doing so, resident Jim Koelsch said, the developers snatched up the land that is part of his waterfront view. He fears the developer could build another unit blocking his view, although Leduc said only a pier is planned there.

The change was made without 100 percent support of the condo owners, which Koelsch argued is a violation of the condominium documents and state law. And because there is a dispute about the ownership of some of that land -- the condo owners say they own it as part of the common area, while the developers contest it's theirs -- Koelsch said he no longer has a clear title to his condo.

"I hate lawsuits. They're such a waste of resources," said Koelsch, who is one of the four condo owners who sued the developers over this dispute. "But you can't let somebody steal your land."

But Leduc said the developers acted within their rights. The legal fine print on the condominium documents requiring 100 percent support of the owners to change the development, he said, was "in error."

"The thing he doesn't realize," Leduc said, "is the developer has the right to do whatever he wants."

-- Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or bhall@sptimes.com.

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