BERLIN – Regardless of which side of the issue they’re on, property owners in White Horse Park agree the lawsuit regarding full-time occupancy has changed the community.
While some highlight the newly enhanced security measures and increased accountability as improvements, others in the park decry their lack of privacy and cite board overreach and tunnel vision related to the court case. In a landscape already marred by the impacts of COVID-19, the issues related to the lawsuit continue to frustrate the community a year after it was filed.
“At this point whatever the courts decide I’m happy with,” property owner Donna Linkins said. “It’s time to move on.”
Last fall, a group of residents initiated a lawsuit against Worcester County over its plan to enforce decades-old occupancy restrictions in White Horse Park (WHP). While some people have lived in the park fulltime for years, the county in 2018 began efforts to bring the 465-unit community into compliance with its zoning restrictions, which state that between Sept. 30 and April 1 units can’t be occupied more than 30 consecutive days or an aggregate of 60 days.
Though the fulltime residents initially tried to amend county code to allow them to remain in their homes, the Worcester County Commissioners rejected that proposal and announced they’d begin fining residents who didn’t abide by the park’s occupancy restrictions. Those fines have yet to be issued but fulltime residents are hoping to have a judge decide they’re not legal.
A year after it was filed, the case — which has been joined by the White Horse Park Community Association, listed as a co-defendant with Worcester County — continues to plod slowly through the court system. Though there were initially 55 fulltime residents, many have now moved out. Others have passed away. There are now fewer than 40 fulltime residents.
Changes at the park ensure management is aware of who those residents are. Ed Scheiner, a member of the park’s board, said that in the last year and a half a new security company has been hired, cameras have been added throughout the park and a new gate card system has been installed.
“When we got on the board we found out nobody knows who’s in the park,” Scheiner said. “We instituted a number of things.”
Board member Lynette Shutty praised the improvements. She believes lot owners have a responsibility to let the park know who is there.
“Gate card accountability (before) was horrific, “she said. “They were handing them out like candy.”
Other changes the current board has implemented relate to improved accounting controls. Scheiner said a failed audit in 2019 revealed the park’s financial records were in disarray.
“What they discovered was absolutely appalling,” Shutty said, adding that credit card rewards weren’t monitored and petty cash wasn’t tracked.
As a result, the board hired a professional to handle the park’s books and installed a professional park manager. Plans for a reserve study are also underway.
“There’s a lot of things that haven’t been maintained at an optimal level,” said Melissa Peters, president of the board.
Peters currently leads the park’s four-member board. Though her term runs until 2022, the terms of her peers have technically expired. Board member Tim Mummert’s term ended in June but has been extended until whenever the 2020 election occurs. Shutty and Scheiner were both appointed by a majority of the board and were meant to serve until the 2020 election. Though the board mailed out ballots this fall, as plans were in place for a special meeting in November, COVID-19 concerns prompted the cancellation of the meeting. Peters said that because the meeting was linked to the election, the board decided not to have the election until next year.
“We’re not advised by our attorney to separate the two,” Peters said.
Scheiner said the elections committee was also uncomfortable handling ballots.
“There are a lot of people that have extreme fears over this,” he said. “Whether justified or not it’s their personal decision.”
The postponement of the election, however, has a large number of White Horse Park property owners upset. They say there’s no reason the ballots couldn’t have been mailed in and counted by the firm the board already hired to do the job.
“We want to have the election,” 31-year property owner Sylvia Devilbiss said. “We feel as if we’re being held hostage.”
Devilbiss said the last in-person board meeting held was in September of 2019. The last election held was June of 2019. She said that the board has turned down suggestions for outdoor meetings and virtual meetings.
“We have used the COVID excuse until we’re blue in the face,” she said.
Devilbiss understood when the meeting planned for earlier this month got canceled as COVID cases were spiking, but was shocked to find out that the ballots already mailed out would not be counted.
“There’s a group of us now that have had it,” she said.
Several people now believe the board is determined to stay in power until the lawsuit is over. That, however, could be months away, as Hugh Cropper, the attorney representing the full-time residents has asked for a continuance because of COVID-19.
The day after he filed for a continuance, the board held an emergency meeting to postpone the election until March of 2021. Scheiner made the motion to postpone the election until “on or about March 13, 2021, due to the possible lack of a quorum, a out of state travel restriction advisory, Maryland Governor’s advisory against large gatherings…,” reads an email sent from the White Horse Park Community Association to members.
Some, however, believe the board keeps postponing the election in an effort to ensure there’s no turnover before the trial.
“At any rate, if the White Horse Park Community Association cannot safely hold an election, it is axiomatic that the parties cannot complete depositions in this case and hold a trial on December 15, 2020,” Cropper wrote in a supplement to his request for a continuance on behalf of the plaintiffs.
Others made more direct assertions.
“It appears as if they want to stay in power until a decision has been made so they can influence the decision being made,” said Patti McDermott, whose parents are full-time residents of the park.
She says Peters has “stacked the deck” by appointing Scheiner and Shutty.
“The people on the board are against negotiation of any sort with the full-timers,” she said.
Shutty, Scheiner and Peters, however, say there’s no truth to that. Shutty said the board operates by the book despite the fact that they’re harassed and bullied by park residents.
“I’ve never seen such low class and trashy behavior from a subset of people,” she said.
She maintains that the reason property owners contacted The Dispatch to share news of the election postponement is because they want to have people who support full-time occupancy elected to the board.
“The people you have complaining to you are not telling you the complete facts,” Scheiner said.
He said that since the lawsuit had pushed fulltime residents to become “more devious” and that had prompted some of the operational changes at White Horse Park.
“In the past, it has been the wild wild west,” he said.
Devilbiss — who did not support fulltime occupancy at the park — did not get concerned with park politics until she started seeing changes by park management. She said when she brought issues to the board, they overrode her concerns and are focused only on the lawsuit. Mummert, the fourth board member, did not want to go into detail but acknowledged that he wasn’t pleased with the current situation on the board.
For Devilbiss, the primary problems are the lack of election and unanswered questions about finances. Though the board provides financial statements, she said questions about specific expenses have not been addressed. She’s not even sure where to turn for help, as the White Horse Park Community Association is not a homeowners association and isn’t regulated by rules that apply to those organizations.
“If someone has an idea on how we can get help, please notify us,” she said.
Other property owners say the board wants too much control. They dislike the new lack of privacy they feel in the park now that there’s a new security team in place.
“We have security guards walking around taking pictures of everybody’s tag,” property owner Beverly Quimby said, adding that it wasn’t necessary when gate access cards registered who was entering the park. “Because of that (lawsuit) we’re all being persecuted.”
Shirley Skillman agreed.
“They’re taking pictures of license plates and peeping in windows…,” she said. “It’s like you’re a bunch of criminals living there.”
She says that the fulltimers who could leave the park have done so.
“A whole lot of them are gone,” she said. “I don’t know why they don’t just leave it alone.”
The legal costs associated with the community association fighting the lawsuit have also become a concern for unit owners. In the past, the park spent about $1,000 a year on legal issues.
“Our legal costs are pretty significant,” Scheiner acknowledged, declining to give an exact figure. “This case has been, by the plaintiffs’ games, delayed and deferred. They are throwing all the crap at the wall they can get to see what sticks. We will win.”
The county, the other defendant in the case, has spent in excess of $50,000 in legal fees, according to its opposition to being dismissed from the lawsuit.
While Quimby was ambivalent about fulltime residents prior to the lawsuit, others had strong objections to year-round occupancy. Linkins was one of many who felt that full-time occupancy shouldn’t be permitted in White Horse Park. It’s not that she was ever bothered by the full-timers, but that she didn’t want to see her park fees go up because of any infrastructure improvements required if the park were to allow year-round occupancy.
Now, however, she believes the board is the bigger problem. Those on opposite ends of the occupancy issue find themselves talking to one another to find a way to ensure a board election is held.
“The board has brought us all together,” Linkins said. “We just want them out. If we can have a national election we can have a White Horse Park election.”
She said there was no reason ballots couldn’t have been mailed in and counted. When advised of Peters’ concern regarding the fact that the bylaws linked the annual meeting to the election, Linkins said that didn’t change her opinion.
“They’ve broken every other bylaw,” she said. “Does it really matter? All anybody wants is an election. For some reason they want to hold on to power.”
Peters acknowledged that some property owners were unhappy with the current situation but said the park needed to err on the side of caution during the pandemic.
“We’re doing the best we can,” she said. “We’re following legal advice every step of the way. It’s not personal at all.”
Shutty echoed those comments.
“We just want to make sure the right story is out there,” she said. “We all feel strongly we’re doing what the park’s documents say we’re to do… Because these people were enabled and facilitated by prior boards and park managers they feel they’re right.”