Business - August 3, 2017

In state-ordered election, Poinciana homeowners can’t topple developer

Despite a state-ordered redo of the vote, Poinciana homeowners again failed to wrest control of one of the state’s largest homeowners associations from the sprawling community’s developers.

As officials worked to count the votes late into the night Tuesday, state Rep. John Cortes, D-Kissimmee, said he tried to watch as a neutral party. However, the lawmaker was barred from the room because he wasn’t a homeowner.

“It wasn’t an election; it was a sham,” Cortes said. “They treated the election like the ones in Venezuela.”

A photo posted to Facebook shows the legislator wearing a dark-colored suit peering into the room from behind a glass door as a security guard stood watch on the other side.

Some homeowners claim the developer-run HOA treats them unfairly over debt collection and lacks transparency about how it spends money.

Although they put up a spate of candidates in six village elections, homeowners couldn’t overcome the voting power of developers Avatar and Fairhomes Properties, said Keith Laytham, a spokesman for a group of homeowners called Friends of Poinciana Villages.

The association said it followed rules for the new election ordered by an arbitrator with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. However, it also received a ruling in Polk County Circuit Court last month that appears to contradict a key element of the arbitrator’s decision.

That ruling by Polk Circuit Judge Donald Jacobsen said the developer’s votes could be calculated by the maximum amount of homes allowed to be built per acre in the communities. The arbitrator ordered landowners to prove how many homes can be legally built on undeveloped land before voting.

The arbitrator in June tossed out the results of the previous vote held in February that also maintained controlling power of the homeowners association to the developers. Her ruling stated that the developers had cast scores of illegal votes based on undeveloped land, including some lots that were underwater or deemed unsuitable to build on.

The arbitrator has said she cannot talk to the news media about the case.

The Poinciana neighborhood of more than 50,000 residents is divvied up into several villages, each with an elected board.

One member of each individual board is then named to the overall governing master board, which oversees the entire community that straddles Osceola and Polk counties between Haines City and Kissimmee.

A seat on the board gives homeowners a voice in how the community is governed, including how the budget is spent and much it charges residents in annual fees.

In total, 12,109 votes were cast this time. It’s unclear how many of those were cast by the developer, but the association said the developer had up to 9,892 votes across the six elections.

“Going forward, [the association] will recognize the developer’s right granted by each Village Association to cast votes on behalf of its unplatted tracts of land without platting them,” the association said in a statement.

But Cortes and several homeowners were skeptical the association complied with the arbitrator’s order.

And real estate attorney Jennifer Englert, who has fought the association on behalf of several homeowners in several legal disputes, said she wasn’t aware of the judge’s ruling until it was brought to her attention by a reporter on Wednesday.

Laytham predicted there would be more legal challenges filed on behalf of homeowners, which to date has cost about $70,000, he said.

“I promise you that,” Laytham said. “This whole thing is malarkey.”

Englert agreed, saying, “I’m sure we’re going to do something, we just don’t know what yet.”

Victor Destremps, a losing candidate for the Village 1 board, said the election was a tough loss for homeowners. He said he still is hopeful homeowners will one day govern the community.

“I want this place to be run by the homeowners,” the retiree said. “The homeowners should make the decisions.”

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