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Golfers howl over charges for 'free golf'

Angry homeowners claim a country club has revoked their contract for lifetime greens fees.

By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 2, 2003

SAN ANTONIO -- In the mid 1990s, Frank Camidge, Bob Blood and their wives bought houses in Tampa Bay Golf and Country Club with the lure of "free golf for life."

"That was the only reason we moved here," Camidge said. "I'm a retired military person. I worked all my life. I retired at 70 years old. I never thought I'd get a chance to live on a golf course and play golf for nothing."

But nothing has become something. Since Jan. 1, management at the clubhouse has charged the original gratis golfers an "access fee" of $10 whenever they tee off.

Now the golfers, mostly retired like Camidge, are really teed off. Indignant over what they view as a contract violation, Camidge, Blood and others have hired Dade City attorney Charles Waller in preparation for a lawsuit.

Last weekend they picketed the gates of Tampa Bay Golf and Country Club on State Road 52 west of Interstate 75. Things got heated: Camidge was arrested and charged with simple battery.

The protesters still play golf on their neighborhood course. But they mark their $10 checks "Paid under protest under breach of contract." "When we win our case they will be required to refund our money," Camidge said last week.

The "they" Camidge refers to is Transeastern Homes Inc. Since 1998, Transeastern has been the builder/developer of Tampa Bay Golf and Country Club. The company manages the golfing operation for its New York-based owner, Bayswater Tampa Bay LLC.

Reached near his office in Coral Springs, Transeastern vice president Bob Krieff said his company has honored the old 'free golf" contract for four years but can no longer afford to do so.

The promise was included in new home contracts with original builder Dale Whittington. Transeastern isn't obliged to fulfill Whittington's lifetime offer, which wasn't legally recorded and wasn't disclosed to Northeastern when it bought out Whittington in 1998, Krieff said.

As many residents golf several times a week, Transeastern has agreed to cap yearly access fees at $1,100.

"We support their right to demonstrate, but when they say Transeastern doesn't honor its contracts, that's misguided," Krieff said.

Of the 643 homes at Tampa Bay Golf and Country Club, Camidge estimates about 65 were sold under the pre-1998 golf giveaway.

Blood remembers driving with his wife down I-75 seven years ago when the neighborhood's sign caught their eyes. Four hours later they'd signed a new home contract with Whittington's company.

Blood was under no illusions he'd be getting a free lunch. "We realized we'd pay the price of free golf in the price of the house," he said.

That's what makes Transeastern's subsequent reinterpretation of the deal irritating for Blood. By paying a $10 access fee, he feels older residents are essentially paying twice for golf.

The give-and-take between community and corporation has turned ornery.

About 60 residents staged a protest last weekend across the street from the neighborhood gate. Fearing a disruption of the grand opening of another phase of the neighborhood, Transeastern posted employees to monitor the rally.

One person snapped pictures of the protesters. Camidge said he urged fellow protesters to block or otherwise avoid the lens.

"We wanted to make sure slander and libel were not taking place," Krieff said.

Taunts were exchanged and Camidge knocked a camera aside. The much-younger Transeastern photographer fell to the ground in a display of agony residents deemed fake. Camidge was charged with simple battery but freed on $250 bail.

Transeastern claims Whittington's original deal addressed only "greens fees." What Transeastern collects now is a $10 "access fee," which the company said is a bargain compared to the $20 charged the public.

Krieff insists the company's lawyers interpreted the fee as legal. But Camidge said it's a "lock" that the courts will restore free golf.

"What part of free don't they understand?" Camidge said. "Free is not paying $1,100 a year for golf."

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