After years of anticipation and months of positive press clippings, the country’s first community to be home to a Crystal Lagoons® amenity in Epperson, is facing choppy, albeit crystal clear, waters.
First, summer is here and the lagoon isn’t open, thanks in part to Pasco County ordering Metro Development Group, which is building the high-profile project, to halt construction back in May when it discovered 19 buildings had been built without proper permits.
While construction has resumed, even more disconcerting to Metro might be a host of current residents — and others under contract and waiting to move into Epperson — complaining publicly about what they feel are broken promises and false advertising that have led to additional fees, despite paying premium prices for homes in the community.
That group, which it says numbers roughly 70 homeowners and those who have placed deposits or are under contract, hired the Kovar Law Group to represent themselves when, they say, they did not receive any answers from Metro.
They took their complaints public on June 15, when the group called local media outlets for an impromptu press conference at the lagoon. That has exacerbated strained relationships, mostly through Facebook posts and comments, and residents who say they are pleased with Metro and who fear the bad publicity will bring down their property values and cast an unfair stain on the new community.
Metro responded to the Neighborhood News through public relations firm Tucker/Hall with a prepared statement:
“The Epperson neighborhood has been extraordinarily popular, and we are honored that so many families are moving here and enjoying the area. We want all families to enjoy the neighborhood and amenities, and we have already extended new discounts and benefits to early residents. We want to hear feedback from residents about their questions so we can work with them to make the area even better as this neighborhood grows.”
Those angry with Metro, however, say they haven’t received any clear answers.
They say they were promised an idyllic paradise, presented for months in beautiful renderings where one monthly fee of $25 gets you full run of the lagoon, all packaged as “Lagoon Living.”
Instead, those residents are discovering a number of things they claim Metro and Epperson did not market — additional costs for amenities, including rides down an inflatable water slide and kayak and paddleboard rentals, as well as rules against bringing in your own chairs and coolers, as well as memberships for non-residents.
“The people complaining are the ones who looked at stuff without asking questions,” says Epperson resident Ken Shere. “They obviously didn’t read the bylaws” which, he adds, states clearly that Metro has the right “to set and adjust pricing.”
Bill Rowe, who moved into Epperson June 1 with his granddaughter, agrees, but only to a certain point.
“You can put into a contract that we have the right to make changes,” Rowe says. “Of course, they are going to make changes. They have to be reasonable, though.”
Some don’t think Epperson’s latest email falls into the reasonable category, though.
According to an email sent to residents three weeks ago, thanking them for their patience, Epperson introduced, in addition to the $25 monthly fee all residents pay, Play Passes.
Bronze Level passes, which will cost $20 a month per person for the summer season (March through September), are good for unlimited slide rides, four Wibit (an inflatable water platform) sessions and four guest passes. For $40 more a month per person, Silver Level passes allow four 1-hour kayak rentals, four 1-hour paddleboard rentals and two more guest passes.
A Gold Level pass is $90 per person per month, allowing for 30 Wibit sessions, 30 1-hour kayak and paddleboard rentals, eight passes and unlimited slide rides.
A family of four could spend as much as $360 a month ($4,320 per year) to enjoy close to unlimited access to the lagoon amenities, or $2,160 just for the summer. (Note-Metro did not respond to a question about what happens from October through February, since it’s not mentioned in their pricing.)
“I hope they come to some sort of resolution, something fair,” Rowe says. “I don’t want that every time my daughter goes down a slide I have to get out my wallet and pay a fee. I want my wife to be able to walk down to the lagoon and have a bottle of water with her without water police stopping her. I want Metro to succeed, but you have to be fair and not let it become some amusement park. It’s not what I signed up for.”
Epperson is reducing prices for current homeowners. Residents who bought before June 25 receive a 75-percent “pioneer” discount, but just for this summer, meaning that the Play Pass tiers will be only $5, $15 and $22 a month per person. Next year, the pioneer discount will be 50 percent, then 25 percent in 2020, before being phased out completely.
Kristen Alvis, who bought her home in July of 2017, and others, say those who are complaining did not read their contracts closely enough.
“I signed a contract with M/I Homes and again at closing and, in both cases, it was clearly stated that the $25 monthly fee provided you access to the lagoon,” she says. “There was nothing implied about (other) amenities.”
And, for those who are complaining that public memberships will be available when they thought they were buying into an amenity offered only to residents, Shere points out where it clearly says in a recent community disclosure addendum that “the Lagoon will not be for the exclusive use of buyers within Epperson Ranch, and outside memberships will be available.”
Shere says Epperson is the best neighborhood he has ever lived in.
He said Metro provided an Icee truck, tent for a grill and other items for Epperson’s summer bash, and has helped develop a tight-knight community. He is disappointed in the negativity towards Metro, and thinks much of it is being fueled by non-residents who only have deposits down and aren’t yet as invested in the community.
He says he is convinced that 95 percent of residents are happy, even though many might be discouraged that the lagoon isn’t open yet. Those on the other side say that they believe more than half of the residents are unhappy and want answers from Metro.
When the group of residents and potential future residents started having town halls, Shere says he and others asked them to stop representing the community and look for other avenues to resolves their issues. When they hired an attorney, he says that started a series of back-and-forth attacks on social media.
“That’s when it all got real,” said Kip Lessem, an Epperson resident since April. “The fact that the lagoon isn’t open yet, and then all this other stuff happened, it just added fuel to the fire.”
But, Jonathan Smith, a one-time prospective Epperson resident, says Metro’s lack of a response to concerns about amenities, and a series of what he called “conflicting messages,” left him and others no choice.
“It was marketed and advertised and sold to us as an all-inclusive exclusive amenity for residents,’” he says. “Metro has gone back and forth wavering on really what it was going to be.”
Smith adds that even today, site maps at the lagoon show a two-person slide next to a tube slide in the Adventure Bay part of the lagoon; when in fact, only a large blue and white inflatable slide sits on the other side of the lagoon.
The renderings have been used for months by Metro to promote and market the lagoon, although their defenders says renderings of any project are always subject to change and should not be taken literally.
“If you look at the rendering and can’t take it literally, then why even post it?,” Smith asks, adding that instead of deluging Metro with emails, the group decided to hire an attorney to represent their concerns and try to get some answers.
On May 24-25, two town hall meetings were held. Smith said due to some of the personal attacks he has endured, he and his wife backed out of their contract.
“I don’t want it to fail,” he says. “I just think Metro should come in and say, ‘Hey guys, we’re going to take responsibility for this (confusion), and moving forward we’re going to change our marketing material.’ If they had said amenities not included, prices subject to change, we would have been okay with that. I just feel like the way they did it was false advertising.”
He said the pricing is no surprise to him, but he can see how it can add up for larger families. He hopes Metro will reevaluate the prices of passes in order to attract more people to the community.
And, about that community — Lessem knows nerves have been frayed and enemies made, all inflamed by Facebook. He said he is “disappointed in the maturity level” shown by many of his neighbors on both sides of the issue, “but people let emotions get the best of them when they get passionate.”
At the end of the day, however, he says everyone has to live together.
“The community is not the lagoon, it’s the community,” Lessem says. “It’s your neighbors. When all of this is said and done, you have to ask yourself, what’s more important? You’re going to find out you missed out on, like making friends, because of whatever side you are taking in this whole debate.’’