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The neighbor behind the storm

Walter Lucas, at the center of a neighborhood controversy involving a foster family, is praised by grateful supporters and portrayed as a busybody by critics.

By CARY DAVIS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 20, 2002


PORT RICHEY -- In the homogeneous, earth-tone world of deed restrictions, painting your garage door in a pink-and-purple checkerboard pattern is a risky proposition.

Such displays of personal expression can earn you a quick and unpleasant visit from the deed restriction police.

But here in picturesque Forest Lake Estates, where controversy over a foster family has polarized a neighborhood, Walter Lucas' pink and purple garage appears safe.

Why? Because 68-year-old Walter Lucas is the deed restriction police.

And if you don't fit in with his vision for the neighborhood, say those who've locked horns with him, watch out.

Foster children apparently don't fit into Lucas' vision for Forest Lake Estates, a community of just more than 200 homes off Ridge Road in Port Richey. That became evident when Lucas, vice president of the neighborhood's civic association, started a movement to oust five foster children from Steven and Corinna Gourlay's home. That movement has since grown into a legal battle over whether raising foster children qualifies as a business or a "residential purpose." And that has turned quiet Forest Lake Estates into a big news story.

So who is Walter Lucas?

To his supporters, he is an asset to the community, a man who raises the quality of life in Forest Lake Estates.

"Walter Lucas is the best thing that ever happened to Forest Lake Estates," said Joseph Shafley, 77, a neighbor and former member of the civic association's board of directors. "He has worked harder than anybody to maintain this neighborhood."

Lucas cuts the grass at the community's entrances and park, picks up trash and fallen tree limbs, dips into his own pocket to buy sod, and then puts it down himself. He also mows lawns for widows in the neighborhood.

His own lawn is a vision of perfection: edged with precision, vibrant green and devoid of weeds.

"He is an out and out good citizen," Shafley said. "The people who complain the hardest about him are the cheapies who don't want to pay their dues."

To his critics, Lucas does too much in the neighborhood.

They say he is a busybody with too much time on his hands. It's hard to miss his tall, tan figure, they say, as he roams the neighborhood with a camera, documenting evidence of deed restriction violations. They say he doesn't hesitate to tell you how many cars you should have, how to control your children and pets, how to landscape your yard.

"Somewhere along the line, he kind of became God, as far as he's concerned," said Corinna Gourlay, whose dealings with Lucas date back to last year.

It started, she said, when Lucas ordered the Gourlays to cover their chain link fence with a green tarp, so a complaining neighbor wouldn't have to see their children playing in the back yard. Later, the Gourlays approached Lucas about widening their driveway. "He told us we really needed to work more on our yard than our driveway," Corinna Gourlay said. "He told us we didn't need three cars."

Soon after that, she said, Lucas told her she was running a day care business. "I told him we were foster parents. He said, "Well, you get money from the state, so you're a business.' "

Then, earlier this month, came the lawsuit from the civic association, alleging that the Gourlays don't meet the definition of a "single family" because of their five foster children. Moreover, the suit claims the Gourlays have failed to restrict the use of their home to "residential purposes."

The civic association also has filed suit in the past year against two other homeowners. In one case, in which Lucas is listed as a plaintiff, a family was accused of violating the deed restrictions by working on cars in their driveway.

"Every time my husband opened the hood of a car," said Gina Massciotte, "Lucas was there with his camera. And he doesn't even live near us."

The lawsuit alleged the family was running a body shop. That was not the case, a judge ruled. Nevertheless, the judge sided with the association and ordered the family to scale back car repairs.

In the other case, filed this summer, the association sued a man for running an Internet business out of his home.

And yet, Lucas admitted in a recent court deposition that he himself does business out of his house. He has a vending machine operation and said he takes work calls at home and parks his delivery van in the driveway. But he's not violating the deed restrictions, he contends, because he keeps the candy, chips and soda in an off-site storage facility.

"The arguments he's using against us, he's in the same category," said Corinna Gourlay.

Lucas also can be vindictive and crude, his critics say. They point to the current edition of the civic association's newsletter, written and edited by Lucas.

On the cover: off-color jokes, including one about elderly prostitutes.

The newsletter also devotes an inside page to taking shots at critics of the association, some by name. The page is not signed, but Lucas confirmed to the St. Petersburg Times he was the author.

"He's like a teenager," said Corinna Gourlay. "He's made the community hostile and stressful."

When a reporter visited Lucas' house last week, he opened the pink front door and politely declined to be interviewed or photographed. "It's very polarized around here," he said. "Write your story. If it's wrong, then maybe I'll give you the facts."

According to public records, Lucas bought the house in 1992. A woman with a different last name also is listed on the warranty deed. She is described on the deed as a "tenant in common with rights of survivorship." Records list a previous address for him in Connecticut. A leased 2000 Acura is registered in his name.

One friend said Lucas had several grown children.

* * *

On paper, Forest Lake Estates is not unlike any other deed-restricted community. Homeowners are bound by a set of general covenants governing everything from landscaping to architectural changes to offensive activity and nuisances. The association is overseen by a board of directors and a slate of officers.

In practice, deed-restricted communities vary widely when it comes to how the covenants are interpreted and enforced. Some communities take a hands-off approach, letting minor violations slide as long as property values are not threatened. Others take the position of strict interpretation.

It all depends on who is calling the shots.

Lucas may be the vice president, but there is little question, residents here say, that he calls the shots in Forest Lake Estates.

As Lucas himself said to a reporter: "I do everything around here."

The question is: How much longer will his reign last?

One longtime resident, Jerry Tomkinson, has launched a campaign to vote out all the current officers of the civic association. That got him slammed in the current newsletter. Typical, Tomkinson said.

"His problem is that he wants a 55-and-older neighborhood," Tomkinson said of Lucas. "He doesn't want kids around here. Well, he needs to move."

Gourlay said Lucas would do better to focus on his own home.

"Have you seen it?" she asked a reporter. "Did you see that garage?"

-- Cary Davis covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is cbdavis@sptimes.com.

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