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Legal troubles in paradise
Cory Lake Isles residents see a community in decline and sue to find out where the money went.
By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 9, 2007
A dead Canary Island date palm sits in front of a home in upscale, gated Cory Lake Isles. To see more pictures go to the new Bruce B. blog
[Carrie Pratt | Times]
NEW TAMPA - Each lot in the exclusive gated and guarded Cory Lake Isles community features a $3,000 Canary Island date palm in its front yard. Houses are nestled along a 10-mile shoreline of Tampa's largest lake. The roads are paved with 14-million red bricks. People have likened it to living in paradise.
So why are some residents so unhappy?
Look beyond the lush, tropical landscaping leading up to the front gates and you will see that Cory Lake Isles has secrets. Dirty little secrets. They come in the form of broken curbs, cement spills and bulging bricks. Moldy playground equipment, dead palm trees and weedy sidewalks.
And perhaps it's biggest secret: how the residents' money is being spent.
A lawsuit brought on by eight residents to unveil Cory Lake Isle's financial records has brought out problems plaguing this community. Homeowners want to know how $4.5-million in operation and maintenance fees they've paid over the past five years has been spent. They want to know who's doing the work and how much it's costing. And they also want things like litter behind the tennis courts picked up.
As part of their battle, they've captured the ugly side of their community on camera. They've posted these images on a Web site created exclusively for those Cory Lake Isles residents banding together for change.
They contend their community does not reflect the amount of money they pay for upkeep, although they don't know for sure because no one has provided them with any financial documentation.
In pointing out all of the landscaping and maintenance shortcomings, "we're basically blackening our own eye," said Dan Morford, one of the plaintiffs who has lived in Cory Lake Isles for three years. "But we equate it to having cancer. The lawsuit is the chemotherapy."
Developer in control
The lawsuit was filed against the property owners association, which is supposed to keep receipts of every penny spent for the past seven years. Who has those records remains a mystery. It could be the owners association, the local taxing district or Cory Lakes Limited, all controlled by developer Gene Thomason.
Thomason, who gives up his seat on the taxing district board next year, did not return calls for comment. Neither did owners association president Jane Taggart, nor taxing district supervisor Suzanne Manzi.
But Manzi did issue a letter to residents, in essence defending Thomason and the way the community is being run.
"You are each asked to pay about $150 a month for all the lawn mowing, weeding, mulching, street clearing, trash carting, tree trimming, security gates, salaries, building maintenance the list is 3 pages long" Manzi wrote. "If I total up the cost of the same services at my house, it's way more than $150 a month. ... If you truly care about Cory Lake and your neighbors, you will withdraw this suit and work with all of us in moving this transition forward."
The two sides are taking depositions and anticipate a faceoff in court in January.
"We don't want to be here," Morford told more than 100 neighbors who had gathered recently for an informational meeting about the lawsuit. "But look at the big picture. We have to be here."
Once upon a time ...
Things weren't always this way.
When Michelle Shaw moved in 13 years ago, Cory Lake Isles was much smaller. And it was pristine, she said.
"There was never a dead plant," said Shaw, also a plaintiff. "The moment a flower died, it was immediately replaced."
But the community grew to its now 1,000 homeowners. As its condition deteriorated, things started to unravel.
For years, homeowners demanded to see records but were rebuffed. Mark Basurto, the residents' attorney, said his requests for records have also been denied.
"It's plain and simple," Basurto said. "If they'd give us the records, it'd be over."
By tracing their money, residents hope to find answers as to why there are dead Canary Island date palms, weedy sidewalks and a broken stop sign. They also hope to return Cory Lake Isles to its original condition, considered one of the ritzier addresses in New Tampa.
"We're taking a 10 to 15 percent hit on the value of our homes because of the current state of our community," Morford said. "We keep our homes better than the keeper keeps the community."