(April 8, 2017)
Less than a mile from Orlando’s so-called “restaurant row” on Sand Lake Road stands a community divided.
On one side of Banyan Boulevard are East Bay neighborhood homes with lush green lawns; on the other side are Sand Lake Hills houses with yards filled with sand and patches of grass. East Bay is a section of Sand Lake Hills and has its own mandatory homeowners association. Sand Lake Hills no longer has an association.
A few Sand Lake Hills residents park trucks in yards and boats in driveways. One front yard has hip-high dead shrubbery. And, with no irrigation for public spaces, dead trees claim an open area.
“I can tell you that in this development, there are some of the homes that are more rundown that others. Yes, that’s what happens when you buy in a neighborhood that doesn’t have an HOA,” said Jeffrey Busch, who initiated a 2008 lawsuit that dissolved Sand Lake Hill’s voluntary association in 2014. “But people find out real quickly that living in HOAs is like living with big brother.”
With more than 900 homes and a collection of neighborhoods, Sand Lake Hills is one of a number of communities built during Central Florida’s 1970s boom with associations that were voluntary and died or that failed to renew rules that expire after three decades.
As Metro Orlando homeowners association fees rise faster than the rate of inflation — increasing from an average $197 in 2005 to $271 a decade later, according to real estate data website Trulia — homeowners without HOAs are immune from rising costs, but also from rules that can keep aesthetics intact.
Orlando attorney Cliff Shepard said associations for smaller neighborhoods are particularly vulnerable to lose their authority. They often lack the funds to hire professional managers who ensure associations renew their covenants and restrictions after 30 years, in keeping with the Florida’s Marketable Record Title Act. Failing to renew leads to the covenants expiring and they can only be reinstated with a vote of the homeowners.
“If you are a managed association, the property managers should stay on top of this. But if you’re in a small association, then everyone is a volunteer,” Shepard said.
Home buyers often know a neighborhood has an association from home listings but specifics about whether it is mandatory or voluntary are usually in legal documents.
Associations can dictate rules and become controversial, he added, but most intend to protect property values by maintaining common areas and enforcing standards that are higher than local government codes.
“In late ’70s and early ’80s, mandatory associations became a big deal,” Shepard said. “You can’t change the house color or enclose the garage. You have to keep grass mowed, and it’s all about trying to protect the property values of everyone living there, although some think of them as un-American.”
In East Bay, former homeowner association president Barbara Frys drives through her neighborhood streets and points to neglected houses that have been cited, fined and even foreclosed upon by the homeowners association. Driving through Sand Lake Hills, she shakes her head at the poor condition of some of the houses.
“There are some nice homes. They would be even nicer if they were taken care of,” she said. “If you don’t have a homeowner association, the trees go, the grass … It’s just awful.”
Orlando resident Ted McDonald, who presided over the Sand Lake Hills homeowner association before it disbanded, said residents now use websites such as Nextdoor.com to post concerns about lighting, irrigation and other issues.
“They don’t realize how much good they [associations] do. People don’t understand who pays for plantings and water. We used to water all the cul-de-sacs, pay for lighting and upkeep. Now, if you want to put a cattle barn on your yard, you can do it.”
Angelo Bersani owns a home in Clubhouse Estates of Dr. Phillips, which lost its association as a result of a lawsuit claiming the voluntary group overstepped its boundaries. He estimated that Orange County has many more small, aging residential developments poised to lose their associations.
Those neighborhoods are “going to fall apart because no one can take care of them,” he said. “It’s going to hell in a handbag. There’s a guy whose grass is 3 feet high and another guy who parks his work trucks on his lawn.”
Bersani said his own yard could use some help and that he’s budgeted for a new irrigation system.
Without an association, residents can turn to local governments when neighbors park junk cars on streets or fail to cut lawns and maintain their homes. Frys said county employees have been responsive about a number of concerns.
Most owners, she added, quickly address any problems when they get a note from their neighbors serving on the association board.
By Mary Shanklin, Orlando Sentinel
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