Saturday, March 28, 2015

Stepping Up at The Hammocks

This was forwarded to us by PIE member Lindsay Yates. What a terrific story about the great things that a community can do with cooperation and leadership. 
We had to agree with Lindsay's assessment: "I hadn’t heard a thing about the potential development.  I’d like to meet these Hammocks people and give them a kiss."

The Hammocks: Beating the builder to thepunch

By Harold Bubil

Published: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 at 11:04 a.m.

Homeowners in The Hammocks Cape Haze neighborhood here were less than
thrilled when a national builder planned to buy a chunk of foreclosed land and
construct units smaller than those already in existence.

Their fear was that the new units would further erode alreadydepressed
property values.

So the owners banded together and forked over $3,400 each to buy the property

“A nobrainer,” said Sam Desiderio, vice president of the Hammocks' master
homeowners association.

The Hammocks, with 162 residences measuring 1,500 to 2,600 square feet, suffered
the fate of many a mid-2000s condo project built in an overheated market: It was
born at the wrong time.

Tampa-based developers Stewart Saad and Searing Merrill completed the units and
a luxury clubhouse — with shiny dark flooring made of reclaimed barn lumber — in
2006, before losing the property to a bank.

Mike Russcol bought a Hammocks unit in 2007 for $560,000 and used it as a
vacation home for a few years before moving in full time after retiring three years

“I should be wearing a scuba tank,” Russcol said, referring to how far underwater he
would be if his 2,500-square-foot unit were mortgaged. “The prices that they are
going for now would be about half what I paid.”

Hammocks prices are still low — a 1,600-square-foot unit sells for $180,000 — but
the hemorrhaging of value appears to have stopped.

At least part of that reversal is attributed to the homeowners' aggressive —
unorthodox — move to buy the community's land.


The association got involved in the land-buying business two years ago, after
national homebuilder D.R. Horton proposed completing the complex.

Horton planned to build units measuring 1,300 to 1,500 square feet, said Carolyn
Maddy-Bernstein, president of the Hammocks' master association and the
Hammocks Preserve section of the community.

“People became very afraid that what they wanted to do was going to diminish our
values,” Maddy-Bernstein said. “At that point, we thought we had to protect
ourselves and our amenities.”

Homeowners weren't the only ones to see Horton's plan as a threat to property

“It definitely would have had a degrading effect on their property values,” said Janet
Romano, of StoneGate Bank in Venice. “I think it would have changed the nature of
their community.”

Russcol remembers being skeptical.

“At first we said, 'You're crazy,' ” Russcol said.

Sarasota attorney Chad McClenathen, who counseled the Hammocks' leadership,
said many condo communities with undeveloped land have considered preemptive

“Not many follow through on it,” he added. “It is hard to do. It takes a lot of
volunteer time. They have to negotiate with the developer. Then they need to get
approval from the membership, tied in to amending the documents so the
procedures are in place to grant the the approval.

“Then, like they did at The Hammocks, they need to line up financing for those
owners who prefer to pay in installments instead of a lump sum.”

But those concerns were ultimately outweighed by the desire to buy the property.

“The uncertainty of having that land here and the specter of another builder coming
in and doing what Horton had intended to do was keeping prices low — things would
never appreciate much as long as that was a possibility,” Desiderio said.

Some residents were concerned that adding several dozen more units might
overwhelm existing amenities, which include a clubhouse, a pool, tennis and pickle
ball courts and a fitness center, Desiderio added.

Straw vote

The association formed a nine-person land acquisition committee to negotiate.
Eventually, the two sides agreed on a $500,000 price.

For those who didn't want to, or couldn't, pay the required $3,400 per unit for the
purchase in a lump sum, the association obtained a $100,000 loan from StoneGate,
which specializes in lending to condo associations.

“It is very unusual for a condo board to do something like this,” said Romano, who
arranged the loan. “The loan was the easy part. Doing the due diligence and the
document work was the hard part.”

That paperwork involved changing condo documents to convert the vacant land into
a common element.

Even after the price and the loan were arranged, Maddy-Bernstein remained

“I thought, 'This isn't going to work,' ” she said. “I thought we would get way down
the road and then our owners wouldn't vote for it.”

A year ago in February, the association held a town hall meeting and a straw vote on
the acquisition.
“Everyone wanted to buy it,” Maddy-Bernstein said.

The vote was 100 for acquisition and 13 against. Condo rules required 67 percent of
those voting in person or by proxy to approve.

Some of the nays were from absentee owners who did not want to pay assessments,
Desiderio said. Other no-voters wanted to buy the land, but had reservations about
the process.

Desiderio said the key to the favorable vote was open and frequent communication
with the owners.

“We had multiple town hall meetings and sent out a great deal of literature,”
Desiderio said. “We wanted to make sure this was very transparent and that people
had all the information they needed to make an intelligent decision.”

One thing that was absent was acrimony.

“We had no meetings where people were shouting at one another,” Desiderio said.
“People realized we have this opportunity and it wasn't going to cost them that

The empty land could still be developed, McClenathen said. But he doesn't see that
happening anytime soon.

“Everyone gets used to it as open space,” he said. “I have never had a community
elect to sell it down the road and develop it.”

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