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Rebellion seething in sedate enclave

Westchase residents may dump a governing board, installed only last December, that some say is preoccupied with piddling issues.

By LOGAN D. MABE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2001


WESTCHASE -- In this northwest Hillsborough community, where the grass is not allowed to be greener on the other side, fences and mailboxes are policed and "property values" is a sacred chant, a storm is brewing.

"We had an explosion take place," said resident Duke Tully in describing a recent meeting of a normally unremarkable neighborhood subcommittee. The detonation: A member of the Westchase Resident Advisory Committee made the bold motion to dismiss the entire board of the Westchase Community Association, which governs this 3,000-home deed-restricted development.

"It blew everybody away," said Tully, the parliamentarian for the advisory committee. "There's a tremendous upheaval going on."

The board has been vexed by contentious and long-running debates on issues as mundane as whether residents can have portable basketball goals. Other issues range from basic (screen doors and overnight street parking) to big-ticket (a $2.5-million community center under consideration).

Dissatisfied with the members of a previous board of directors, the Resident Advisory Committee, which represents residents from the 14 villages that make up Westchase, installed a new board during annual elections in December.

The RAC, sort of an electoral college for the neighborhood, picked 11 new people to run the show. But since then, four members have resigned, citing personal reasons. And the remaining seven have come under fire for their handling, or lack of handling, of neighborhood issues.

Glencliff resident Gary Langley was the RAC member who made the motion to dismiss. Langley said he was acting as a spokesman for some RAC members. The reason for the motion? Langley made only a vague reference to "procedures" that the board was not following properly. He said he had to be vague because "I'm sworn to secrecy."

But resident Harry Carter, a former chairman of the RAC and an outspoken critic of the board, has an idea.

"I think there was a sincere hope that the new board would come into being and would seek to change," Carter said. "I'm very disappointed. I think they got off on a footing that just doesn't set well with the community. There are just so many issues that have been laying there that they haven't addressed and instead they've added additional issues."

Westchase is a planned community that has grown over the past decade from cow pastures and orange groves into one of the premier addresses in suburban Tampa. Its 14 villages, situated around a pristine golf course and a top-flight swim and tennis center, offer high-end housing in the $170,000 to $500,000 range.

It has its own schools, parks, youth sports leagues, social clubs and recreation programs. And with a population of roughly 7,500 residents, the size of a small town, it has its own politics.

Monthly Westchase Community Association board meetings often run five hours or more, adjourning after midnight. The all-volunteer board deals with everything from traffic lights on busy Linebaugh Avenue to hiring trappers to relocate wayward raccoons.

"We would so much like to get on with real business and not get bogged down with these small special-interest groups who insist on having their day in court," said Kris DiGiovanni, a board member and its spokesperson.

What rankles some residents, though, is the way the board is conducting its business, small or otherwise.

"We have some concern about the procedures," Langley said. "We can replace them if we find that the procedures are invalid or they are not following guidelines."

Not so, said DiGiovanni, one of the 11 new members elected in December.

"I can assure you that this board pays particular attention to operating under our current documents and if there's any possibility that we are doing something that could be a violation, we always consult with our legal counsel for advice," DiGiovanni said. "This board has been focused on doing it by the book."

Langley asked that a meeting to determine the board's fate be convened before May 23.

Chris Colden, who was featured years ago in advertisements touting the splendor of Westchase, seconded Langley's motion and piled onto the bandwagon seeking the board's ouster.

"The community has fallen apart," said Colden, an unsuccessful candidate for the board at the last election. "It's not right and if enough of us sit up and notice, we can overthrow this board. All they do is waste time on the same things -- screen doors, basketball hoops, stuff like that. It's just a shame."

Colden and her family moved into Westchase in 1994 when she had only about 200 neighbors. Now, as it nears build-out, Westchase is also nearing meltdown, Colden said.

"It's lost its community feel," she said. "What I advertised as being this great family thing has been clouded by the way this mini-government is run. People move in here thinking it's the cute little community that I advertised, but it's not."

-- Logan D. Mabe can be reached at (813) 226-3464.

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