It’s by far the largest single-family housing development in Baldwin County, but some say it’s the biggest east of the Mississippi River. If you’re not among the nearly one-third of Daphne residents who live in Lake Forest today, chances are you know someone who does or someone who did.
Originally platted in the early 1970s, Lake Forest currently has more than 3,000 homes and over 10,000 residents. Perhaps most popular for its convenient location — just off Interstate 10 and less than a 15-minute drive to downtown Mobile — the neighborhood is also one of the few on the Eastern Shore where you can still find a large inventory of relatively inexpensive homes. In fact, a search of real estate listings this week returned 64 homes in Daphne priced below $200,000. Forty-two are in Lake Forest. A separate search returned 163 listings for houses in Daphne priced at $300,000 or more. None are in Lake Forest.
“Nature abounds,” boasts a listing for a newer-model $189,000 brick home on Mellattau Circle. “Perfect for people on the go,” states another listing for a $164,900 two-story home on Avon Circle, built in the 1980s. “Easy access to I-10, shopping, restaurants and grocery stores,” the description reads for an architecturally peculiar $147,400 home on Paige Circle.
Many listings also call attention to amenities the entire neighborhood shares: an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, a yacht club, horse stables, three community pools, a city park and neighborhood clubs and organizations for children, families and seniors. Further in the fine print though, it’s noted those amenities aren’t free.
The seven-member Board of Directors of the Lake Forest Property Owners Association (POA) recently voted to raise monthly dues to $70 per household, generating an annual budget of roughly $2.9 million, according to internal financial documents provided to Lagniappe. But for some residents — many of whom are fixed-income retirees or first-time home buyers — $840 in annual dues is too much.
Last month, the newly formed Lake Forest Home Owners Group presented a petition with 1,364 signatures to the Daphne City Council, urging the city not to issue building permits or do any business with the Lake Forest POA until resident complaints are resolved. The city suggested its hands were tied, but encouraged the residents to work with the POA board.
Aside from several recent dues increases imposed by the board without a vote of the general membership, the petitioners also expressed concerns about financial and administrative transparency. They claim the board has recently amended covenants and bylaws to give board members longer terms, eliminate term limits and exercise a voting bloc that can likely never be overruled by the membership at large.
Ian Walters, an organizer of the homeowners group and petition, told the council the board has “alienated hundreds of homeowners, raised dues to the level that is crippling people’s budgets and continue to make decisions against the wishes of the majority of the membership.”
“We are being run as a dictatorship by three or four people that operate in secrecy …” he said.
He was not alone.
Resident A first lived in Lake Forest shortly after it was initially developed in the 1970s, before his career took him elsewhere around the country. Eventually he returned, buying a newer home in the subdivision in the mid-2000s. He and his wife, now both retired, are active in neighborhood activities and clubs.
Admitting Lake Forest is still “a pretty darn nice place to live,” Resident A said with recent hikes in dues, it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to budget.
“Young families and older people cannot afford $70 monthly dues,” he said. “Lake Forest has some nice homes, but most people do not use the amenities. Housing values like everywhere have increased, but Lake Forest is one of the few places where most people can afford. It would cost me at least $150,000 to move to an adjacent subdivision like French Settlement, where homes start at $350,000. Lake Forest is a bargain.”
Resident B bought her home in Lake Forest from the builder in the early 1990s. A divorcée with a white-collar career, she considered the mortgage of less than $70,000 and the accompanying $12.50 monthly dues at the time easily affordable.
Although she questioned how frequently she would make use of the amenities, she believed they were an asset for the neighborhood and would support the long-term value of her investment.
“Now I’m retired and I’m on Social Security and you can’t live on that,” she said. “Today my house would sell for $150,000 to $165,000 and I cannot even get a reverse mortgage. I talked to three different companies who say it needs to be appraised at $170,000 or better.”
Indeed, according to data provided by the Baldwin County Association of Realtors, the average sales price of a home in Lake Forest was $165,134 over the past 12 months, well below the price of homes in nearby golf communities. In Fairhope’s Quail Creek and Rock Creek subdivisions, the average sales prices were $316,382 and $389,151, respectively. In Spanish Fort’s TimberCreek subdivision, the average sales price was $500,214.
Meanwhile, as those prices have increased over the past year by as much as 15.7 percent in Quail Creek, 12 percent in TimberCreek and 8.9 percent in Rock Creek, sales prices in Lake Forest remained relatively flat with an increase of only 2.5 percent. Still, with 183 homes sold in Lake Forest over the past year, it had 64 more transactions than the other three subdivisions combined.
Residents C and D both moved to Lake Forest within the past two years. Resident C said he was “shocked, disappointed and embarrassed” the first time he visited the yacht and golf clubs, recalling his first impression was that both were “really out of date.”
“The whole yacht-club lifestyle was for the 1970s and ’80s … I’m not sure you could ever make that a destination for the 2000s,” he said. “And I don’t play golf. I’m not sure whether we have a good golf course or not, but I look at the golf course all the time and don’t see people lined up to play there.”
Resident D said his real estate agent told him dues were only $60 per month, but after he signed his mortgage he discovered they had just been raised to $70 per month, plus there was a special assessment of $50 per year.
“It’s actually our first home so it kind of soured the experience for us a little bit,” he said. “We can amply afford our home, but not much more, and I’m not sure dues will stop at $70 per month.”
He also questioned the viability of the amenities.
“I’m from the generation that gets blamed for killing golf — ‘millennials are killing golf!’ — but apparently we’re in the golf course business as a POA, and evidence shows that’s not a good business to be in now. I was surprised to find out it was still marketed as a golf community. No disrespect to the sport, but it’s not something that appeals to many people of my age.”
One of these residents didn’t want to be named because of their social status in the neighborhood. One claims they are afraid of reprisal from the board, saying it routinely “picks on” any resident known to “cause trouble.” The other two are under a cease and desist order not to discuss certain personal information they discovered about one of the POA’s board members and subsequently shared on social media. That information is not relevant to this report and won’t be disclosed herein.
One resident who was eager to speak on the record was Roger Pitts, who expressed a sort of delight in being a thorn in the board’s side since he purchased his house in Lake Forest seven years ago.
“I wasn’t there long before I heard a complaint about the RV parked in my yard,” Pitts said last week. “I’ve had a travel trailer or a fifth wheel out there on the side of my house where the power source is because that’s the only place it would fit and I couldn’t put a power source on the other side of the house. I tried to resolve it with the POA, but was always told there was only one way, their way. So I fought it for 17 to 18 months before they took me to court. There was a bench trial and I immediately lost, but I felt like the deck was stacked against me when I walked in. Now I’m under an order to pay court costs and attorney fees, but everywhere you look you can see [some other violation] in yards and I wonder if they’ve had the same problems.”
Resident Jessie Oswalt has also defended and lost a lawsuit from the Lake Forest POA. In March, he was ordered to pay $7,234.97 in unpaid dues, along with related fines and court costs.
“A previous board member told me if I don’t like paying dues, just stop,” Oswalt said. “So I did. But that didn’t hold water in court.”
Oswalt purchased his home in Lake Forest in 2001. At the time, it was one of the handful of waterfront properties on the shore of the neighborhood’s namesake manmade lake. Today, the shoreline has receded more than 100 feet from Oswalt’s property line, the result of years of sedimentation from upstream development along D’Olive and Tiawasee creeks.
“Ask any realtor you want to, my property value has taken a dive,” he said. “I used to catch 3-pound bass in 5 or 6 feet of water in my backyard, but now it looks like a jungle and all you can get out of it is rats, possums and snakes.”
In 2016, the University of South Alabama (USA) performed a study of the lake on behalf of the POA and the city of Daphne. Using comparative data from 1958 and 1974, USA determined accumulation of sediment had reduced the lake’s open water surface area from 61.6 acres in 1974 to 43.3 acres in 2016, also reducing its flood attenuation capacity.
“The available pool volume has decreased from 356 acre-feet in 1958 to less than 197 acre-feet in 2016,” the study summarized. “In other words, the lake has lost nearly 45 percent of its flood volume storage. This value may be as high as 61 percent considering the original open water extent of the Tiawasee Creek arm of the lake at the time of dam construction.”
Today, the lake, golf facilities and the yacht club are all in separate states of disrepair and residents who spoke to Lagniappe are at odds with the board over whether the so-called amenities are in fact liabilities. While the board has expressed its intention to make improvements to all three, some members fear they will be wasting money on unprofitable endeavors.
According to the board’s 2019 budget, the yacht club is projected to operate at a $266,848 deficit this year. The pools will lose $144,297 and the tennis courts will lose $64,074. The golf course? That’s where it gets really ugly. Even with annual income projected at $353,300, golf course maintenance is projected to cost a total of $767,305, according to the budget.
The board responds
Lake Forest POA President Steve Sasser moved to Lake Forest with his family in 1979, when he was 4 years old.
“It was a really, really cool place to grow up,” he said, recalling how his family has long been involved with the neighborhood’s swim team, stables and golf activities. “We had tons of weddings and banquets and stuff at the old country club … I spent my summers at the pools.”
After their own wedding in 2000, Sasser and his wife began looking for long-term housing.
“Maybe I wasn’t motivated to live in Lake Forest because that’s where I grew up, but really there was just nothing else that compared. I said, ‘I had a great childhood here, so let’s raise our kids here.’”
But as his own children became involved in neighborhood activities, Sasser said he began to notice certain shortcomings. The swim and racquet club he used to frequent in his youth had been condemned and demolished. The country club where he used to eat ice cream and hunt for Easter eggs was also gone. The pools where his own kids learned to swim were mocked by visiting swim teams and guests.
“It really just pissed me off,” he said. “Knowing what we had growing up with and what the powers that be let it turn into.”
With the encouragement of a neighbor, former board member George Kersey, Sasser said he began to get involved with board business. In 2012, he was appointed to a vacant seat. He was elected in 2013 and has served ever since.Sasser said he joined the board in a “toxic” climate. Dues hadn’t been raised in more than 20 years and when the board voted on an increase from $37.50 to $43.50 in 2010, a previous board member claimed it was illegal and sued, launching a legal case that wouldn’t be fully resolved until 2015, according to court records.
“We were nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in debt,” he said. “They were struggling to make payroll, nearly every amenity we had was falling apart and the pools were leaking water faster than you could put it in there … It was desperate.”
But just before he joined, the board hired a management company to “coach the board of directors on what they needed to do to take care of the neighborhood,” Sasser said. “They said, from day one, you need to raise dues because you don’t have enough money to take care of what you have.”
But dues increases were prohibited while the lawsuit was pending. Meanwhile the management company, Vision Golf Management, now known as ICON Management Services, filed a BP oil spill claim on behalf of the POA, which ultimately awarded the neighborhood around $800,000 after legal fees.
“In one swoop we paid off half a million dollars we had in debt … and we put $200,000 in a reserve account,” Sasser said.
The board also exercised its authority to impose the annual $50 assessment fee, which paid for improvements to the bulkhead at the yacht club that year. The year the lawsuit was settled, the board raised dues from $43.50 to $50 per month, still imposing the annual assessment fee, which together raised “close to $1 million” to make repairs and improvements to all three pools, Sasser said.
“You would have thought we cut people’s thumbs off,” Sasser said of the reaction, which brought dozens of residents to board meetings before interest died off after a month or two.
“We decided we’re still not where we need to be, so the next year, we went from $50 to $60,” Sasser said. Again, residents came in large numbers to board meetings in protest but again, interest waned after a few months. “Same thing, nobody was there and we’re steadily plugging away, making plans, saving money and then this past year, we raised the dues from $60 to $70.”
The latest increase, along with a series of proposed bylaw changes last October, boiled over into a “tense” ongoing conversation, Sasser said, admitting he and the rest of the board were at fault for poor communication throughout the process.
“Folks started showing up for meetings and of course they’re mad … but it’s a great thing we’ve got people who are getting involved,” he said. “But they don’t know what we’ve been through to get us where we are and they don’t really understand how much better a situation we’re in than what we were.”
However, informed the POA is not currently carrying any debt, members were less concerned with how money was spent in the past and more concerned with what the board’s plans are going forward. At the 2018 annual meeting, according to members present, the board suggested it is saving funds to restore or demolish and rebuild the golf- and yacht-club facilities.
Sasser admitted as much.
“To do what we need to do with [the golf club] and most likely the yacht club, that’s going to involve us having to borrow some money,” he said. “And so to get us in a position that we could, number one: to have money to put down as a down payment, and number two: to be able to confidently and responsibly say that we can make this payment every month, we needed to be at [$70 per month].”
Sasser’s statement is in contradiction with that of board member John Lake, a former Daphne city councilman who joined the Lake Forest board two years ago.
“As far as the [golf facility] is concerned, that is a discussion the board has been having, but we have not made a decision yet,” he said. “No one on the board has the taste in their mouth to go and borrow any amount of money because we’re debt free and we like to be debt free.”
Lake, who voted against the most recent dues increase along with board member David Dueitt, said any money the board is “squirreling away” is “for needs 20 years down the road,” so similar maintenance issues can be avoided in the future. Plus, he noted any time the board borrows more than $100,000, it has to be approved by a majority of POA members in an election.
But residents remain wary. Until April, the seven members of the board had the luxury of casting one ballot per quarter acre of undeveloped property in Lake Forest. That amounted to 1,343 votes for the board, far more than the 100 to 300 members who typically exercise their right to cast a single ballot for each election.
In response to member concerns, covenants have since been changed to prohibit that practice. But in 2015, the board formed a nonprofit corporation known as Lake Forest Preservation Inc. The inherited developer of Lake Forest then “donated” more than 100 undeveloped properties to the nonprofit, which has the same board of directors as the property-owners association. In lieu of the more than 1,189 votes they can no longer access due to new covenant restrictions, the board can still cast around 154 votes on behalf of the nonprofit.
Sasser claims the board accepted those donated properties to prevent the developer from taking advantage of expiring covenants and potentially developing the lots without restrictions.
Victoria Phelps was the only other board member to respond to an invitation to comment. First elected six years ago, she currently serves as vice president.
“We’re a board comprised of seven volunteers of diverse backgrounds and experiences and we work really, really hard to make our community a better place,” she said.
She joined Sasser and Lake in bemoaning the typically low member participation at board meetings over the years, but she deferred to Sasser for specifics.
“I can just tell you that I understand some of the concerns and that we’ve taken steps to try to address those … and try to improve the communication back and forth,” she said. “One metric I will give you is that from 1981 to 2003, there were not any dues increases within Lake Forest and that led to a steep decline in all the beautiful things we have to take care of … we have done a series of increases since then in order to address the neglect and other needs of the organization. That understandably gets some people upset. But I’ve comported myself professionally and I’ve always tried to be an honest broker of information throughout the course of my journey here and it’s unfortunate we find ourselves in this place right now, but we are responding in a positive manner to try to answer, explain and provide information and do our due diligence to do the responsible things.”
As part of the improved communication, the board posts more often on its website and social media accounts and now hosts quarterly town hall meetings. The next is scheduled for Thursday, June 13 at 7 p.m. in Daphne City Hall.
But residents remain upset. In fact, the same former board member who encouraged Sasser to participate recently published an open letter disavowing the entire board.
“Our Board of Directors has taken all our rights to determine the direction of this community away from us,” George Kersey wrote on the Lake Forest Home Owners Group website April 22. “Now they want to go into debt, without the residents’ blessings to replace the yacht club and the [golf clubhouse] … All attempts to deal with the [board] have been met with arrogance, name calling, and fierce resolve that this [board] can do what they want … It is past time for the residents of Lake Forest to demand that this [board] resign.”
Those hoping to influence some change on the board may soon get their wish. Sasser said he is moving from Lake Forest to a new house with a mother-in-law suite where he can look after his mother and her husband. The terms of two other board members are set to expire next year.
Sasser’s house is currently under contract and he expects to close on June 19. He didn’t want this paper to disclose the sale price, but if the numbers are true, his investment in the neighborhood appreciated 90 percent over the past seven years.
“You know I hear these rumors that our dues are going to make it prohibitive to sell houses … but my house was on the market for six days,” he said. “All the realtors I’m talking to are saying sales are hopping in Lake Forest.”
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