Turmoil boils beneath surface
Residents of a wealthy enclave want control of the homeowners group.
By ELENA LESLEY
Published July 31, 2007
TARPON SPRINGS - Harbour Watch is a little slice of paradise, jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico. Inside its imposing entrance gates, quiet streets wind past colorful minimansions, many perched several stories high. The homes' steep front steps lead to impressive living rooms, with spectacular panoramas.
The cost for the waterfront view: millions.
But as Harbour Watch residents have learned, you can't buy your way out of nasty local politics.
The serene atmosphere conceals a dispute that has been brewing for years, that has led residents to swap hostile letters, file a lawsuit and even vandalize the community pool with feces.
And it's all about to come to a head.
Tonight, a group of residents has scheduled an election to pick new leadership for the homeowners association, 20 years after the development's first lot sale. A police officer will be there just in case things get rowdy.
Those pushing the election obtained support from owners of 35 percent of the community's lots. They say they've been ruled by a dictatorial, developer-run association that is unaccountable for much of the group's more than $400,000 annual budget and ignores the will of the majority.
"July 31 is our independence day," said Richard Warnke, one of the residents running for election. Those backing the election say under the development's founding documents, developer oversight of the association expires after 20 years.
But those currently in power say the special meeting is invalid - that the community's covenants allow the developer to extend his right to run the association for another 10 years. They said they won't recognize the results of the election.
"These people are crazy," said property manager and association secretary Jackie McMahon. "They don't want to understand the law."
Meanwhile, residents wonder how what seemed like such a tranquil setting could have spawned such rancor.
"It looks like such a lovely place," said candidate Vaughn Duff, who has owned property in the development for over three years and plans to move there soon. "You don't appreciate at first the turmoil beneath."
Never a transition
Fairfield Communities Inc., a Delaware corporation, founded Harbour Watch in 1987. The authority to run the development and make most important decisions, called "developer's rights," passed through several different parties.
Backers of tonight's election say Fairfield planned for residents to eventually take over maintaining the infrastructure and common areas and running the homeowners association once the community had matured, said Craig Moulton, a former board member who is running for election.
But that transition has never happened.
Instead, in 2000, one of Harbour Watch's own residents, Mark Robinson, a CEO of a local medical supply company, bought a number of vacant lots in the community along with the developer's rights. He said his motive was to protect against an outside developer obtaining the rights and possibly building low-quality homes.
"It's been nothing but a headache," he said of running Harbour Watch. "I never would have acquired it if I'd known this would happen."
Robinson said the conflict has reached a point where he runs to the mailbox to intercept accusatory letters, hoping to shield his family from the community's viciousness.
Under Robinson's watch, critics say, the community has installed lavish new gates, done extensive resodding and spent money on other frivolous projects without adequate input from residents, who pay $225 a month in dues to the homeowners association.
Those trying to oust Robinson, whom some call "King Mark," say there's a simple solution to his headaches - he could step down
And they contend he had a different motive for obtaining developer's rights: They exempt him from paying monthly dues on most of the 14 lots he owns.
Robinson says this couldn't be further from the truth.
"I want to get rid of them," he said of his properties. But he claims community unrest has made this impossible.
One effort fizzled
This isn't the first time residents have tried to get rid of Robinson.
In 2003, a group calling itself the "ad-hoc committee" --and sometimes the "Harbour Watch Dogs" -- filed a suit against the association and individual board members. They claimed that Robinson had never officially acquired developer's rights and accused the association leadership of impropriety.
The effort eventually fizzled. Charges against individuals were dismissed though some unresolved counts remain against the association as an entity. All board members but Robinson resigned.
Now the association leadership consists of Robinson and Harbour Watch's two property managers, whose contract fees are paid by the association.
"Due to this lingering lawsuit, it was decided, after much discussion with Management and the Developer, to have two non-resident Board members the property managers serve until the matter is settled," the Robinson-controlled board wrote to Harbour Watch residents in May.
The latest resident revolt against Robinson comes while he is also under scrutiny outside the neighborhood.
The Tarpon Springs Police Department issued an affidavit for his arrest July 8 after responding to Robinson's home where witnesses said he tried to hit his son with a 2007 Cadillac Escalade after an argument.
The State Attorney's Office said Monday it hasn't decided whether to pursue charges.
Robinson denies the incident happened. "There's been a lot of pressure on me," he said.
Though Robinson insists he maintains all the legal rights to control the homeowners association, he said he plans to call his own election in the near future to hand over control to residents - but on his own terms.
He wants out of running paradise.
"Living here has been absolute hell for my family," he said.
Elena Lesley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4167.