Ten residents of West Lake Townhomes, an M/I Home Development that lies across a large CDD-owned lake from the Westchase neighborhoods of Stonebridge and Sturbridge, attended the Jan 7 Westchase CDD meeting to demand the district take more action to control a midge-fly problem.
The decision of the West Lake Community Association, which lies outside of Westchase, to have its lawyer, Anne Hathorn, send a letter to the district demanding further use of pesticides in the lake or potentially face legal action, however, prompted CDD Supervisors to unanimously pass a motion instructing CDD staff to end further communication with West Lake residents and their HOA and leave discussions between CDD Attorney Erin McCormick and Hathorn.
The break comes after months of the Westchase district working with the residents to address several different issues.
The large lake that West Lake residents insist is producing the midge flies is a former borrow pit that the West Lake Developer, M/I Homes, recently deeded to the CDD, prior to resident takeover of that HOA. The lake, which district staff acknowledges is in poor condition, had previously overflowed its banks, flooding the Sturbridge community. That, in addition to supervisors’ interest in controlling water quality and the lake’s potential use by boaters, prompted the district to recently take ownership of it when it was offered by M/I Homes.
Field Supervisor Doug Mays previously speculated that the muck at the lake’s bottom contained years of nitrogen build up from cattle manure from the former Thomas Ranch, which surrounded it, and the lake’s island, which serves as a large bird rookery. In recent months, supervisors and Mays pointed out, the district has spent a great deal of time and money addressing the best ways to oxygenate the lake bottom to improve the lake’s health.
Last month, Mays stated, district staff pulled thousands of dead fish from one end of the lake, which were killed due to low oxygen level. He added this oxygenation issue potentially contributes to the sporadic midge fly problem. Mays had previously stated an aquatics expert said that midge fly larva burrow into the lake bottom and the inability of fish to reach them due to low oxygen levels enables swarms of them to survive.
Midge flies are non-biting insects that, while they can collect in large numbers on the sides of homes near water bodies, do not transmit disease.
Present at the meeting, CDD District Manager Andy Mendenhall and CDD Engineer Bob Dvorak stated that other districts they work for have had midge fly problems. They stated they can occur in heavy amounts one year and then disappear for years afterward. They both cautioned that in all of their years of experience with district pond maintenance, they saw no evidence that any proposed treatment approach, chemical or mechanical, was effective in controlling them. “This is a natural phenomenon in Florida in lakes,” Dvorak said, “In terms of treatment, I’ve not found any system, any fish or any chemical that anyone would stand by as getting rid of them.”
Nevertheless, in recent months, in response to West Lake homeowners’ requests for help, Mays stated the district made four larvicide treatments of the lake at a cost of $750 per application. District staff, however, eventually switched approaches. “The information we got was the larvicide won’t get rid of them.” He added, “I didn’t see the sense in spending $750 that wasn’t going to be a solution.”
Mays said that when West Lake homeowners recently demanded the larvicide treatments be reinstated, he asked residents if the community, given the circumstances, would be willing to help pay a portion of the bill, but no one would agree to do so.
“It seems weird that we’re all paying for a pond their developer gave us that was dirty,” Mays observed. He added, “We’re working our butts off to solve the problem. But I really believe that the clean up of the pond is the solution.”
At recent district meetings, Mays instead recommended CDD supervisors purchase a nanobubbler to install on the lake to increase its oxygenation and overall health in hopes of reducing the midge fly larva in the lake bottom. Mays stated to expedite the issue, he had also arranged to rent a second nanobubbler for three months. Installation of the two machines, however, has been delayed by the district’s need to run electricity to the lake, which requires the district request the county assign an address to the property. Rather than wait, Mays said he recently arranged to rent generators to power the nanobubblers, which, combined with the bubblers, will cost $26,000.
West Lake residents attending the meeting—including their current HOA president Randy Orne and their previous HOA president, Robert Drummer —insisted that the larvicide treatments had worked, reducing the flies. They added, however, that they took more formal action when Mays stated the treatments had been suspended in lieu of the nanobubbler installation and large swarms of the flies reappeared when warm weather returned between Christmas and the beginning of the new year. “The issue is really bad,” said Orne. “It affects our [home] values.”
Saying he appreciated what the district had done so far to address the issue, Orne stated, “We as an HOA had nothing to do at all with the transfer of the pond.” He added, “We have a problem now that needs a solution now.”
Lynette Dooley, who owns a Sturbridge home in Westchase also attended the meeting to state that her property, which she rents, is also affected and the tenant is threatening not to renew the lease because of the midge flies.
CDD Chair Jim Mills cautioned the West Lakes residents that the pond’s condition predated its transfer to the district, a position which was countered by the residents who stated the midge flies were not a problem prior to CDD ownership.
Pointing to the cost of the larvicide treatments and the belief that the far more expensive nanobubblers would resolve the issue, CDD Supervisor Greg Chesney cited the need for the board to wisely use the district’s resources. “We thought it made the most sense.”
Chesney stated that the district had expended a significant sum of money already on lake improvements. “I understand you that you think we need to do our job, but I think we are doing our job.” Citing staff’s previous work with the West Lake community to address their concerns, Chesney added, “The legal letter doesn’t seem very neighborly. It turns me off a little. Just a heads up on that.”
West Lake resident Steve DiPiano angrily responded, “When we moved here that lake didn’t have any midges.” He added, “You try living with bugs scurrying all over the place.”
“I had an obligation to my HOA to do something,” Orne added. “I would like to be neighborly but I have an obligation to my HOA.”
“Is there any way to go back to M/I Homes and say, ‘You gave us a turd here?’” said Supervisor Forrest Baumhover, who asked whether the board should directly respond to the West Lake HOA’s attorney’s letter.
Supervisor Brian Ross, an attorney, cautioned his board about the wisdom of discussing the matter in open forum given the HOA’s threat of legal action. When he inquired whether the board could meet afterward in closed executive session to discuss the matter, CDD Attorney Erin McCormick stated they would need to publicly notice any closed meeting to discuss litigation (which would require the release of a transcript of the closed meeting discussions after conclusion of the matter).
Ross ultimately made the motion directing staff to cease communication with West Lake residents due to their threat of legal action. After it passed unanimously, West Lakes residents departed the meeting, with one informing the board that the matter would be brought to the media.
Subsequently, Baumhover suggested inquiring with the HOA, which lies outside of Westchase and the district, if it would be open to agreeing to a CDD assessment as part of their insistence on particular approaches to lake treatment. “Nothing we do is going to be enough because they don’t have to balance the budget,” he said. Baumhover added that the board had a responsibility to wisely spend Westchase homeowners’ money to address an issue that largely doesn’t affect them.
Supervisor Ross advised McCormick to respond to the attorney’s letter firmly, delineating the actions the district has taken to legally comply with laws and permits surrounding the lake’s maintenance. “Our staff and experts say we are maintaining the lake effectively.” He added McCormick should demand the HOA attorney delineate where the district had failed to meet its obligations under the law and SWFTMD’s lake permit. “We need to come back with a hard fastball,” he said.
Supervisor Chesney expressed disappointment that the West Lakes residents had failed to note that the district had been quite responsive to all of their past requests, citing the district’s trimming of bushes to ensure their view of the lake and treating hydrilla along its shoreline. When reading the attorney’s letter, he said he had first mistaken the communication as a resident’s demand. “I thought, ‘Have you lost your minds?’” he said.
Mays concluded by stating that the nanobubblers were in and should begin being installed the following week, but added that the aquatics company that treated the lake had some of the larvicide left over and if supervisors felt that it would help to make one final treatment, he was open to doing so. While two supervisors felt it would make a goodwill gesture, the board left it to Mays’ discretion.
“Nobody here is saying we don’t want to be good neighbors,” Ross said. He then asked what steps Mays would take to ensure noise from the generators would not impact the homeowners. When Mays stated they had picked an insulated generator and a location to minimize its impact, Ross observed, “That’s an example of being a good neighbor.”
Supervisors concluded the matter by asking Ross to handle all board communication regarding the matter going forward.
In a related matter, CDD Engineer Robert Dvorak, at the meeting’s start, stated that to get a permit to run electrical service to the lake area, the district needed to complete a boundary survey. A motion to approve the survey at a cost left to the discretionary approval of the CDD attorney and chair passed 5-0.
CDD Attorney McCormick then updated supervisors on discussions with Hillsborough County regarding a proposed cell tower in Glencliff Park. She stated that county staff felt a community meeting to get input from Westchase residents and residents of nearby neighborhoods should be held before proceeding. Supervisors voted unanimously to notice a public meeting for discussion of the proposed cell tower for 6 p.m. on Feb. 18 at the Maureen Gauzza Public Library.
Supervisors also revisited their plans to renovate Westchase entrance signs. After discussing the best approaches to preparing an RFP to bid out the project, supervisors voted 4-1, with Supervisor Brian Ross opposed, to publish an RFQ for landscape architects to develop designs and specifications to bid out the project, perhaps in steps over multiple years. Ross did not indicate his reasons for opposing the motion.
Closing the meeting, Supervisor Greg Chesney stated he had been approached by an individual about an issue whose discussion was more appropriate to the upcoming Jan. 21 CDD workshop, currently scheduled for 4 p.m. at the Maureen Gauzza Public Library. He stated he would know for sure by Jan. 18 it the matter would be ready for presentation. Chesney declined to identify the matter to be discussed, saying there was a possibility it might not occur. Claire Clements, a West Park Village resident and developer, also appeared at the meeting’s beginning but when asked what motivated her presence, responded to WOW’s reporter that she wasn’t ready to comment. “Loose lips sink ships,” she said. “Timing is everything.” It was not clear, based on public discussion, whether Clements’ visit was related to Chesney’s announcement.
In other actions:
CDD Engineer Robert Dvorak stated he had finished the field survey on a flooding area and collapsed CDD drainpipe behind two Stamford homes and hoped to soon finalize the site plan and RFP to bid out the repair.
CDD Attorney Erin McCormick encouraged supervisors to adopt a formal threshold for requiring hired vendors to be covered by a contract and review by her office. Supervisors unanimously passed a motion stipulating that all work above a threshold of $25,000 required a contract in addition to any job proposal and bid.
Supervisors unanimously approved a bid for $7,590 for Davey Landscaping to apply deep root fertilization to 69 magnolia street trees in West Park Village. Field Supervisor Mays stated they had identified 10 additional struggling trees that would not likely benefit from the treatment and said he would bid out their replacement with 65-gallon magnolias.
Addressing recent comments on Westchase Neighborhood News about the Greendale entrance, Mays stated staff was moving forward with getting the notice of commencement for building an entrance monument there. CDD Chair Jim Mills, a Greendale resident who advocated for the project, stated that, rather than being a part of Greenmont, the CDD assesses Greendale as a separate neighborhood, justifying the entrance marker.
CDD Office Manager Sonny Whyte stated she was working with Hillsborough County and the Westchase Community Association’s Government Affairs Committee (GAC) to ensure that the new county-installed signage in West Park will be upgraded to match West Park’s existing signs. She stated that county staff had recommended that county signs be installed first to enable the district to install their upgrades without going through the county’s sign-permitting process. Supervisors approved the $7,900 expenditure, which will be billed to West Park’s property owners.
Supervisors adjourned at 6:20 p.m.
By Chris Barrett, Publisher