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Judge quashes land-buy plan

The Palm Hill Country Club can't buy the land it sits on without approval of 75 percent of residents.

By RITA FARLOW, Times Staff Writer
Published September 9, 2007


LARGO - A judge's order has scuttled a plan by some residents of the Palm Hill Country Club to buy the land underneath their mobile home park, at least for now.

In a written order released Aug. 28, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Nelly Khouzam ruled that the park's board needed approval from 75 percent of homeowners to buy the 165-acre property.

In April, the board fell short of that number when only 57 percent of the park's 1,096 homeowners voted in favor of the purchase.

Issues surrounding the proposed purchase have created a divisive atmosphere at Palm Hill over the past several months.

Homeowners say they were originally told the deal required 75 percent approval. But after the votes were tallied, board members announced they still planned to pursue the purchase because they believed only a simple majority of votes was needed.

In May, the board sued a group of seven residents who opposed its plan. Through its attorneys, the board argued that the park's homeowners documents gave it the right to buy the land without the approval of shareholders, or at least with a simple majority of votes.

However, in her 17-page ruling, the judge said the land purchase required 75 percent approval, the same number needed to amend homeowners documents.

For some park residents, who feared buying the land would make their monthly payments too expensive, the news came as a relief.

"This has been so stressful, terribly stressful," said Chris Eckhart, who opposed the purchase. "Now we'll be able to get back to some normal life."

Board Chairman Allen Rudden, 72, said the board has no plans to appeal the order.

"We wanted a ruling from the court, we got the ruling and now we have to learn to live with it and mend any fences that have been breached," Rudden said.

But board member Forrest Stinson said many residents still want to try to buy the land, which is owned by descendents of the John S. Taylor family of Largo.The judge's ruling does not prevent the board from holding another vote.

"As long as we've got the lease, we're at a disadvantage," said Stinson, 73.

Through a cooperative, the shareholders own their homes and the park's amenities, including the pools, clubhouses and sewer lines. Residents have a 99-year lease, which states that the land must be appraised every 15 years to determine the monthly lease rate.

The value of the land has been at the center of the battle. Those who are against the purchase have said the Taylors' $76-million price tag is too high and they would rather wait until the land is appraised in 2010 before they attempt to negotiate.

On county tax rolls, the land is valued at $52-million. The Taylors received an appraisal for $81-million, and later agreed to reduce the price to $76-million.

Andrew Rodnite, the Taylors' attorney, could not be reached for comment. Attorney Joe Gaynor, who represented the board for the land deal, said he was disappointed by the ruling.

Rich Long, one of the residents against the sale and a defendant in the lawsuit, said his group wants to oust the board through a recall petition.

Long and his group say the board acted inappropriately by misinforming residents about several issues surrounding the deal and trying to buy the land without the proper number of supporting votes. Some residents said the board may have violated voting requirements by opening proxies before the vote.

But Long says he has no animosity toward residents who wanted to buy the land. "We're willing to forgive and forget, I can tell you that," he said.

Lawyer Joe Magri, who represented those against the purchase, said the judge's order should ease the minds of some park residents who were concerned the increased monthly payment might force them out of their homes.

"The good people of Palm Hill can go to sleep tonight," he said, "knowing that the written word matters."