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Public roads, private gate

A deal with the county allows some communities to install guardhouses and gates on public roads. The result, some say, is illegal harassment.

By JOSH ZIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2002


KEYSTONE -- All Henry Echezabal wanted to do was pick up his wife's dress.

It should have been a simple visit to the Keystone Manors/Keystone Crossings subdivision. Instead, the March 17 trip became a source of outrage when, Echezabal says, a guard at the entrance gate not only refused to let him wait for the seamstress but asked him to leave.

He should have been allowed in. Legally, Echezabal didn't even need to identify himself or say why he was at Keystone Manors.

The roads in Keystone Manors are public, as are those in Bay Port Colony, Heritage Harbor and Crystal Lakes Manor. However, a special agreement with the county allowed these communities to install guardhouses and gates at their entrances.

"If they had the right I'd have no complaint," said Echezabal, a professional surveyor who verified that the roads were public, then complained to the county Department of Planning and Growth Management.

Citizens' rights in these subdivisions are crystal clear, officials say. Any person at any time can enter without having to answer a single question from a probing guard.

In the aftermath of Echezabal's experience, county officials are taking a closer look at the enforcement of the licensing agreements that make these gates possible.

It doesn't help that Craig Mahlman, the department's manager of site plan and subdivision review, says a guard questioned him when he asked to be let into Keystone Manors.

"The guard asked me, 'What for?' " said Mahlman, who was driving a clearly marked county vehicle. "I said it doesn't matter. They're public streets. He let me in. I felt it was still unnecessary."

Mahlman does not think Keystone Manors is the only place where guards are overstepping their authority. "I'm thinking if it happened this one time . . . it's happened somewhere else," he said.

Commissioner Jan Platt is taking things one step further, questioning the policy itself. She plans to put the issue up for discussion on an upcoming land use agenda.

While not necessarily against the licensing agreements, she wants commissioners and the public to be aware of the issues. "I think the public acquiesces to the fact there is a guard there and citizens don't really know what their rights are," she said.

"The public assumes if there's a gate there they can be stopped. I think it's wrong and I think we need to relook this whole issue . . . and see if it serves a public purpose."

Good for property values

Homeowners say the gates and guardhouses make them feel safer by discouraging criminals from entering their neighborhoods.

"You want that added sense of security . . . that your child can play safely," said Steve Wilcox, who moved to Keystone Manors 10 years ago.

Having public roads maintained by taxpayers is much cheaper than privatizing them. Gates and guardhouses also are viewed as having a positive effect on property.

"Property values are maybe $10,000 higher if they have a guard at a gate," said Susanna Madden, president of the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors.

But many also acknowledge -- usually without any hint of guilt -- that there's a ruse involved.

Keystone Manors resident Diane Sharkey, a former Navy wife who is accustomed to guards and gates, calls them a "mental barrier" against crime or mischief. Keystone Manors even puts out signs that say "Private Property," "No Soliciting/No Trespassing" and "Guests Sign-In at Guard Station" by the entrance.

Yet, in this security-obsessed age homeowners ask, "Who really minds?"

The security benefits are not free, they point out. Under their licensing agreements, they must pay for maintenance of the gates and guardhouses. Those costs, along with the guard salaries, significantly jack up homeowner dues.

"Is it fair" to question visitors, asks Cheryl Lister of Crystal Lakes Manor. "It is voluntary. The guards are very polite about it. Should the guards give you a choice to do this? I don't know. None of my guests have complained about it."

The county is complaining, however. In a letter sent out this week to the Keystone Crossings Homeowners Association, Planning and Growth says the community violated the licensing agreement by keeping Echezabal out, and by installing gateposts within the curb. The letter also criticizes the entrance signs and the fact that the guard questioned Mahlman.

Unless they satisfy these issues, they might have to remove the gate.

Calls to subdivision officials drew a mixed response. Crystal Lakes Manor Homeowner Association president Sharon Espinola responded, as did Rick St. Pierre, a member of the Heritage Harbor Community Development District board; and Allen Getz, property manager of Bay Port Colony.

University Properties, which manages Keystone Manors, responded but would not answer questions. Keystone Crossings Homeowner Association board member Jim Ridgely did not return repeated calls.

A Times reporter visited each of these subdivisions twice. Most guards questioned the reporter, who refused to answer those questions and stated instead that the roads were public. One guard at Crystal Lakes Manor denied the reporter access, only on the first try.

Espinola talked to the guard and denies he told the reporter to leave. "I've known this guard for a few years and have no reason to doubt him," she said. "Our standard operating procedures do not prevent nonresidents from entering the community."

In response to crime

Bay Port Colony, a waterfront community south of Town 'N Country, was the first northwest Hillsborough subdivision to cross this delicate line.

In response to crime, homeowners approached the county in the mid-1990s with the idea of placing gates and a guardhouse across the entrance off Hillsborough Avenue. The County Attorney's Office looked into it.

Attorneys found a 1990 opinion by the state attorney general, who responded to a request from a Melbourne community to install a security gate across a public road and limit access to residents and nonresidents with remote controls. Town officials said they wanted to reduce traffic problems.

The Attorney General's Office said no, that installing a security gate across a public road did not fall under a municipality's powers to control traffic.

The County Attorney's Office analyzed that opinion, and the nature of Bay Port Colony's request. It concluded that since Bay Port Colony sought to improve security, not impede traffic, the attorney general's opinion did not apply.

Planning and Growth Management wanted to deny the request, out of concerns that citizens could be prevented from using public roads. But the County Commission, sympathetic to homeowners bothered by crime, approved Bay Port Colony's licensing agreement with the provision that nonresidents could not be denied access. That agreement was followed by Crystal Lakes and Heritage Harbor in 1997, and Keystone Manors in 2000.

"It does work well," said Getz of Bay Port Colony. "You can't restrict anybody. But if it's perceived somebody's there and watching they'll (lawbreakers) be less apt to do something they shouldn't."

Echezabal maintains that these licensing agreements are illegal, and he wants the county to ask for a review by the Attorney General's Office. But the County Attorney's Office is standing by its earlier interpretation, Assistant County Attorney Rebecca Kert said.

Early kinks

Crystal Lakes Manor off U.S. 41 already had a guardhouse when residents began debating whether to make the streets private and install gates, Cheryl Lister said.

Eventually, like the residents of Keystone Manors, homeowners decided that owning the roads would be too expensive. But most wanted the gates.

Some early kinks had to be worked out. Guards were stopping people from coming in, said Lister, a lawyer who moved to the neighborhood in the early '90s.

"We had some problems initially and we have to be really careful with some of the instructions the guards get," she said.

Lister sees at least one drawback: Gates can give residents a false sense of security by creating the impression all crime will be eliminated. She recalls a rash of car break-ins a few years ago, after the gates went up. And in some cases, people were calling the guards about incidents instead of sheriff's deputies.

Association fliers frequently remind homeowners about guards' responsibilities and citizens' rights, she said. Despite some inconsistencies, she likes what the guards and gates offer: peace of mind.

Homeowners pay about $75 a month in association fees, of which "a big chunk" goes toward maintenance of the guardhouse and gates and the salaries of the guards.

"I didn't seek to live in a gated community," Lister said. But "it's kind of nice having the security. I have gotten calls from the guardhouse. We all tend to leave packages there."

Rocked by the violent attack on two of its residents in 1992, homeowners in South Tampa's Culbreath Isles neighborhood started spending more money on security, said attorney Ted Taub, who lives there.

They pooled money for street lights and hired off-duty police officers. Finally, about a year ago they installed entrance gates. They were able to do so because the city, in annexing the New Tampa community of Heritage Isles, had promised Heritage Isles every privilege the county provided, including the right to build gates and guardhouses on public roads.

"People who don't even live there walk through the neighborhood all the time," Taub said. "It's just a matter of giving as much semblance of security to our residents as possible. We understand they're public roads."

Good for builders

Some would be happy if the gates disappeared altogether.

"Why pay for a gate when they can't stop people from coming in?" asks Rick St. Pierre, homeowner representative to Heritage Harbor's Community Development District. He thinks the entrance helps builders and real estate agents more than the homeowners, who must pay the maintenance and security bill.

Meredith Wester, whose sister lives in Crystal Lakes, no longer bothers visiting. It's too aggravating. "It's a violation of all constitutional rights to have a guard and a gate when they (taxpayers) pay for the roads," she says.

Ten months after the County Commission approved Crystal Lakes' gate plan, Wester, a lawyer, wrote to the association, complaining about a guard who repeatedly hassled her when she refused to answer all of his questions.

She asked the association to better inform its guards about the rights of nonresidents, specifically their ability to enter the development without being grilled. She also requested that the association post a sign informing visitors of their rights.

Interviewed this week, Wester said that one resident responded by threatening her over the phone. She now avoids the gates altogether.

"I felt if I wasn't an attorney, didn't know the law . . . and the guard didn't finally give in to me, I wouldn't have gotten in," she said. "My sons tell me every time they go in there, they get the third degree."

-- Josh Zimmer covers Keystone, Citrus Park and the environment. He can be reached at 269-5314.

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