RUSKIN — When the bottom dropped out of the housing market a few years back many developers abandoned projects all over the country. Homes stood half-finished. Others were completed but were left vacant surrounded by a mix of dirt, block and wood that were never used, instead of by other finished homes.
I worked on news stories with Hillsborough County Code Enforcement and with sheriff’s deputies who were worried about neighbors watching out for crime activity in nearby vacant houses.
While some of these places still stand vacant and others have turned to rubble, residents of the River Bend development on 21st Street in Ruskin decided to take matters into their own hands to improve their lot- or in this case, “lots.”
It turns out their hands were very capable and they were able to turn things around.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Lance Belka, one of the five-person core team behind the effort. Mostly Belka credits Harry Wallace, who took the reins and gathered resident volunteers, contractors and county officials to take over the CDD (Community Development District) the developers left behind; cover costs associated with the vacancies; form their own governing board; and finally build the amenities residents had been promised when they bought their homes six years ago.
Saturday, July 21, residents enjoyed the results of the team’s hard work for the first time at the Grand Opening of the pool and playground.
“I couldn’t wait to come over,” said Richard Ostor as he came up from a dive underwater playing with his two grandchildren. Ostor was there with his daughter Kimberly Molinaro who was one of the first homeowners and has waited years for this to happen. “The ‘regime’ here really got things done we thought were impossible,” Ostor said. “It’s amazing how those guys were able to deal with more than 500 homeowners, some who were pretty angry.”
Chris Douglas, whose wife Algalana (known at River Bend simply as ‘Al’) talked about how he appreciated all the sacrifices the group had made to better their community. “They worked so hard, and it really shows,” Douglas said.
The team, made up of Rich Orcutt and Bill Bish as well as Wallace, Belka and (Al) Douglas said they had help from County Commissioner Sandra Murman and Jim Ford from the county’s Building and Construction Department.
“They were able to help us through many rough spots,” Belka said.
The group also is grateful for the work done to help start the process by former resident Dean Walters, who has since moved, and BYO Enterprises of St. Augustine, whose workers took a pool that had been started five years ago and upgraded it and finished it to their specifications.
“It’s an astronomical accomplishment. BYO is going to use this 125,000-gallon pool in their ads,” Belka said.
Wallace told the story of the group’s efforts as he sat down for the first time all day. When I arrived for photos of the Grand Opening at noon, he was still at work on the new clubhouse, covered with sawdust and sweat.
As he told it, Metro Land Development in Tampa obtained the original CDD to build the community. (This is — in a very nutshell description — a county procedure where bonds are sold; developers get loans and make promises to build certain amenities as well as homes.)
Metro used five builders and contracted them to build 400 homes. After about 375 of them were occupied, most of them went bankrupt or just pulled out.
“Taylor Morris and Lennar stayed,” Wallace said. Taylor Morris built 20 last year and Lennar owned 53 more lots they just finished.”
But the CDD still had 254 empty lots.
Taxes were owed. There was a mess. And there seemed to be no chance of getting the pool and clubhouse.
According to Belka, Wallace led the charge for residents to take over the CDD.
In 2009, a special assessment was put on each homeowner for $326 a year for five years and a loan taken out to build the first part of the amenities, Wallace said.
The most important were the pool, clubhouse, kiddie pool and playground.
But to Belka, a retired law enforcement officer from Ohio, security fencing was just as important.
He showed me how kids are unable to get from one area to another without adult supervision and also places where a fingerprinting identification system is being installed.
“You can fake an ID card,” he said. “But you can’t fake a fingerprint.”
He said the system will be like the one at Busch Gardens gate.
With the help of county officials, the River Bend Community Development District was formed with Wallace as its chairman. The next thing is to make the 254 vacant lots the property of the CDD so that when all the legal matters are taken care of, any operation and maintenance fees collected can go back into finishing the amenities.
The first move after gaining ownership of the CDD was to hire District Management Services and form a five-person board, Wallace said.
These residents are a good example of what can happen when a few people make up their minds to make a positive change to their community.