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Heritage Harbor fee spike sparks concern

The operations and maintenance fee will go from about $200 to $800 in three years.

By JOSH ZIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 11, 2002

LUTZ -- Greg Tamborello thought he had found a great deal when he bought into Heritage Harbor three years ago: a roomy home at a reasonable price in nice surroundings.

One of the bargains, he said, was the low operations and maintenance fee he paid to help keep the golf course community looking spiffy. The initial fee for his share of the lawn mowing, flower planting, lake cleaning and gate personnel was below $200.

But he's not so happy anymore. The fees have been going up as fast as new houses, and are set to jump again this year from the current $450. A $350 increase, already approved in next year's budget, will raise the overall fee to about $800, said Rick St. Pierre, the homeowner representative on the subdivision's Community Development District. That's more than a 200 percent increase in just three years.

Most homeowners, Tamborello added, probably won't realize the increase until they see next year's tax bills in September. The fee will show up as a non-ad valorem assessment, St. Pierre said.

According to Lennar Development, which owns Heritage Harbor and controls the budget-setting district, determining the yearly fee is difficult. The new fee merely reflects the company's true costs after several years of dipping into its coffers to cover the deficits, vice president Rob Ahrens said.

Tamborello and others have a different view. They believe Lennar was keeping the fees artificially low to attract home buyers into the new subdivision.

Tamborello said the developer has been telling people the costs would be spread out evenly among hundreds of new homes. Heritage Harbor has about 325 homes, fewer than half the number platted for development, St. Pierre said.

"You get blindsided," Tamborello said. "People have a tendency to believe something that's too good to be true. And when somebody tells you you go get all of this and it's going to be maintained for (less than $200), my God."

When asked about the increase, Ahrens and CDD manager John Daugirda initially blamed the cost on additional services. The maintenance budget jumped 21 percent from $426,000 last year to $516,000, primarily from a $70,000 increase in landscaping and an expected spike in utility costs.

"There were some drought-related costs," Daugirda said.

But Ahrens acknowledged that the company has been subsidizing the fee for years past by paying the difference between the assessment and actual costs. He portrayed the policy as an example of Lennar's commitment to the quality of life in Heritage Harbor.

In approving this year's budget, the CDD merely was responding to residents' wishes, he said.

"When we start the services, it's awful hard to judge what the services are going to cost," Ahrens said, denying the new rates will allow Lennar to recoup what it subsidized in the past. "Instead of going to the homeowners ... we foot the cost initially. Then we come back to the homeowner and say, "This is the cost of what's being provided.' "

This year, "the homeowners felt it was reasonable," he said.

But they don't necessarily buy his explanation. St. Pierre, for one, believes Lennar is just too big a company to make such a big mistake. "That just doesn't wash," he said.

He and Tamborello do not believe Lennar is acting in the best interests of residents, who will be saddled with millions of dollars in debt once the company turns over control of the subdivision in the next several years. Under state law, Lennar/U.S. Home is entitled to a majority of the membership on the five-person Community Development District, which oversees management of the subdivision and issues bonds to finance the golf course, roads and other infrastructure.

Residents are beginning to question whether the company is looking out for their long-term interests.

"It's like the fox watching the chicken coop," Tamborello said.

* * *

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

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