06 September 2010

The American Spectator takes on age-segregation

The American Spectator
THE NATION'S PULSE: Active Adult Communities and the 'Grace of Chaos'
By James M. Thunder

On August 10, Colin Mason of the Population Research Institute wrote the essay "Are Children the Enemy of Productivity?" He quoted Frank Cottrell Boyce's article in the Guardian:

There's a belief that to do great work you need tranquility and control, that the pram is cluttering up the hallway; life needs to be neat and tidy. This isn't the case. Tranquility and control provide the best conditions for completing the work you imagined. But surely the real trick is to produce the work that you never imagined. The great creative moments in our history are almost all stories of distraction and daydreaming -- Archimedes in the bath, Einstein dreaming of riding a sunbeam -- of alert minds open to the grace of chaos.

Mason agrees with Boyce that children do not distract us from productivity, but he added that he believes they actually enhance our productivity and enhance our lives generally. Children, he writes, "remind us that the greatest insights in the world were discovered not while ponderously meditating, but while delighting in the simple pleasures and pains of life."

Boyce's and Mason's words reminded me of when I was 42. My wife and I and our daughters, ages 16 to 5, moved to a suburb outside Milwaukee. Our next-door neighbors were a retired veterinarian, Dr. Frank Gentile, and his wife, Irene, both about 80. As it turned out, they knew my sister and her family who lived in the next suburb.

We moved away a few years later. And Frank and Irene moved into an assisted living home and passed on.

But my family does not forget them. I have memories of snowblowing their driveway and sidewalk and watching election returns with them. My daughters recall with great fondness their invitations to eat cookies with them after school in their kitchen. One of my daughters and I and Frank sang in the same church choir.

During these same years, we became family to my sister's widowed father-in-law, Jack Schlosser, who was in his 80s and lived nearby. He came to many events of both my sister's family and my family. And one of his grandchildren lived behind us.

In this past year, I've known a couple of people who have moved into active adult communities. Active adult communities are planned, often gated, residential areas for people ages 55 and up, without children under the age of 18. Our three elderly friends outside Milwaukee could have moved to one of them. If they had, all three of our generations (elderly, middle-aged and children) would have been deprived of fruitful, loving relationships.

The number of active adult communities continues to grow in our country. Why?

Residents are repelled by certain aspects of urban or suburban life: the noises of children and of teenagers, crime, and high property taxes that supported schools. And they are attracted by amenities -- bike and walking paths, golf courses, clubhouses, swimming pools, tennis courts, a full plate of indoor recreational activities. While these same amenities are typically available in urban and suburban communities, active adult communities provide them together and close at hand.

I submit that active adult communities are inimical to a rich human life. While still active, while still mobile, while still employed, the residents have purposefully disengaged from their elders, from teenagers, from children -- except on the specific dates and time and places they select. On the spectrum of what should be regarded as examples of faith-based land use planning and what should not, active adult communities fall on the extreme of "not."

When I was in college, I would return home of course. In church, it would feel quite odd to be among young children, teenagers, middle-aged people and the elderly. At first I was happy to return to campus and be with my same-age peers. Later, it was the campus rather than the church that seemed odd. I started calling college campuses "youth reservations." But at least college campuses have redeeming value. They are devoted to the development of the intellect and the transmission of knowledge. They are populated by people intending to remain no more than four years and then go out and change the world. Residents of active adult communities, on the other hand, could remain 20-plus years, and to what good purpose are they devoted?

There may be value in being a "gun-free" or "tobacco-free" or "drug-free" zone, but where is the value in having grown-ups post "child-free" signs? Where is the value in having them post signs declaring "under-age-55-free zones"?

I submit that the groomed and tranquil landscapes of active adult communities are a blight on our larger communities and our nation.

In utter contrast to this blight is the recent development of one-room portable modules that house elderly persons. They will be placed temporarily on the lot of a caregiver's permanent home. The Commonwealth of Virginia recently passed legislation allowing such siting to supersede local zoning laws. The juxtaposition of permanent and temporary housing structures may not be aesthetically pleasing but, in similar fashion, school districts around the country have sited temporary classrooms next to school buildings for the sake our schoolchildren. Hopefully, these modules for the care of our frail elderly will blossom across the landscape. Virginians have welcomed "the grace of chaos."

James M. Thunder is a Washington, D.C. lawyer who has spoken and published on what he calls "faith-based land use planning."

05 September 2010

The Villages' big IRS problem (pt. 2)

IRS-Villages dispute shows no sign of resolution

Lauren Ritchie
September 1, 2010
Second of two parts.

In May, the Internal Revenue Service agent conducting the review of $355.4 million in outstanding bonds issued by the Village Center and the Sumter Landing community development districts suggested a settlement in the ongoing war between the two.

The district should redeem all its bonds and repay the debt. It should pony up $16 million in back taxes on the bonds and should agree never to issue tax-free bonds again.

The settlement suggested by the agent wasn't received with dancing in the streets. Though there is no written rejection in the files at the district office, the answer that filtered back to the IRS was quite clear.

And it touched off a new set of skirmishes in what has become an expensive battle — already $209,000 spent in mostly lawyer fees — that I described in Sunday's column.

IRS Agent Dominick Servadio responded to the district's disdain for his idea in July by officially opening new investigations on another $60 million worth of bonds issued by the Sumter Landing Community Development District.

Complaints about agent

The district retaliated by calling Servadio's boss and complaining.

On July 20, he fired back in a letter: "All of the complaints/issues you have raised are totally without merit, and I would only hope that in the future you would have the courtesy to direct any similar comments or complaints to me instead of going behind my back.

"I can only assume that the intent of these recent phone calls is to distract attention away from the examination issues, or possibly to indirectly intimidate me or impede me in the performance of my officials duties.

"I can assure you that you will accomplish none of those things."

He stated that "everyone's best interest" would be served if the district honored his request to deal directly with him and quit calling his bosses.

The district's next move was to file a Freedom of Information Act demand, wanting to know with what third parties (especially the evil media) Servadio had discussed the case. That's because the district seemed convinced from the beginning that this is all about a conspiratorial smear campaign by Villages haters or else a career-building maneuver by the agent. (That's standard response to criticism in The Villages. Anyone who questions the financial structure is either jealous or has a secret agenda to destroy the happiness of 80,000 lucky people. It couldn't be anything else.)

The IRS just laughed and said no. It wasn't releasing any documents from an ongoing review to determine whether nearly a half billion dollars in bonds should be considered tax-free.

Outcome of dispute unclear

Since then, Servadio has been promoted. A field agent in Charlotte, N.C., was assigned the case, and in March she asked for hundreds of pages of information about how the districts function and what they own.

The agent wants evidence of the written consent for establishing the districts from all the landowners whose property is included in the district, a legal description of the external boundaries of the district and a land-use plan showing what is intended for the property in the future.

Meanwhile, an IRS appraiser from Palm Beach County came tocalculate the value of what the district bought from the developer with the bond money. Part of the dispute involves the IRS contention is that the developer made as much as 700 percent profit, which Servadio said would never have happened if the developer hadn't controlled the district.

So, there you have it. Nobody's position has changed much, and the dispute is just humming along through the system.

Millions of dollars are still at stake, and the future for homeowners in The Villages is no more clear when this investigation started several years ago.

Copyright © 2010, Orlando Sentinel

Update on The Villages big IRS problems (pt. 1)

IRS relentless in probe of Villages bond transactions

Lauren Ritchie
August 29, 2010
First of two parts.

A year has passed since the Internal Revenue Service suggested that The Villages retirement community redeem more than $344 million in bonds the IRS says were improperly issued as tax-free.

The agency wanted $16 million in back taxes and a promise by community development districts never again to masquerade as a legitimate government.

The Villages thumbed its proverbial nose at such a notion, and then it was on.

What's happened in the interim may be entertaining for those of us watching from the outside but probably isn't amusing for 80,000 residents of the community that sprawls over Lake, Sumter and Marion counties.

It's got to be unsettling and frightening to wonder what's in store. Not to mention expensive. The district already has spent more than $209,000 of residents' money so far, nearly all on high-powered lawyers on both coasts.

Here's a refresher on the situation:

As The Villages was built, its developer Gary Morse created a form of government called community development districts, the same type scrutinized in this column last week.

Some 294 of these Florida districts have issued bonds, and 42 percent of them are in trouble. Either the districts cannot collect enough assessments to pay for the bonds or the reserve accounts have been raided to make the payments, or the developers behind the communities have gone bankrupt, leaving unsold lots and unpaid assessments.

Villagers can take a deep breath on those fronts. Morse and his family are extremely well capitalized — fabulously wealthy is probably a better description — and because homes in The Villages continue to sell, default on the bonds is an extremely remote possibility.

'Blue-sky' transactions

In the Villages, two main community development districts have sold bonds to buy the infrastructure and recreational facilities — things like lights, roads, sewer and water plants, clubhouses, golf courses, gatehouses and more — from the developer.

That's the way it worked, too, in the other Florida districts that have issued bonds. However, The Villages bond deals differ in two key ways — and that has brought them a load of continuing trouble from the IRS, which contends that the developer perverted law to make himself rich at the expense of retirees who buy homes there.

First, the seats on the district governing boards in other developments typically are turned over to the residents as buyers purchase lots and move in. Not so in The Villages, where the districts selling the bonds in question are controlled by the developer and deliberately are set up so he can keep them out of the hands of residents for as long as he wants.

Second, these districts — remember that they're controlled by the developer — are using part of the bond money to buy "blue sky" from the developer. In this case, it is simply the right to collect assessment fees from residents. The developer gets all the fees in his bank account now instead of having to wait for them to dribble in over 30 years. Lucky residents get to repay the bond through fees — with interest — for 30 years to come.

What a beautifully magnificent source of unfettered, risk-free cash for the developer. The other districts in Florida buy things they can touch, such as water plants. "Blue-sky" transactions haven't been included in their bond deals.

Community development districts that buy infrastructure from developers are a rip-off to the consumer, never mind The Villages' "blue sky" purchases, which are just a secondary piece of legal thievery.

In subdivisions without districts that issue bonds, buyers pay for the infrastructure in the price of the house. In those with districts, they do, too. But in addition, they pay a second time for that infrastructure — with interest — as they pay off the bonds, which often add an extra $20,000 to the price of a house.

Three-year probe

All of this caused the IRS to start looking into the district's bonds three years ago and asking questions about who the district really is and who it benefits. It came to the conclusion that a developer-controlled district benefits only the developer and should not be viewed as a real government with the privilege of the ability to sell tax-free bonds.

The district has contended that it is, indeed, a legitimate government under Florida law and as such, should be recognized as such by the IRS.

Oh, my. What a mess.

Now that you are up to speed on the background, we'll take a look Wednesday at the latest moves on both sides and what they might mean for the average homeowner.

Copyright © 2010, Orlando Sentinel

03 September 2010

Kids as Contraband -- Sun City Leads the Way!

Article in the NYTs that discusses the phenomenon investigated in Leisureville -- special enforcement details designed to hunt down families and kick them out of age-segregated communities.


August 28, 2010
Retirement Haven Hunts Youthful Violators

SUN CITY, Ariz. — From behind the wheel of his minivan, Bill Szentmiklosi scours the streets of Sun City in search of zoning violations like unkempt yards and illegal storage sheds. Mostly, though, he is on the lookout for that most egregious of all infractions: children.

With a clipboard of alleged violations to investigate, he peers over fences and ambles into backyards of one of America’s pioneer retirement communities, a haven set aside exclusively for adults, where children are allowed to visit but not live.

Mr. Szentmiklosi, 60, a retired police officer who settled here four years ago, has remade himself as the chief of Sun City’s age police, the unit charged with ensuring that this age-restricted community of sexagenarians, septuagenarians and even older people does not become a refuge for the pacifier-sucking, ball-playing or pimple-faced.

One recent morning, as he slowly wheeled between ranch homes and palm trees, Mr. Szentmiklosi kept a sharp eye on the driveways and yards, surveying for any obvious signs of youth. It could be a stray ball, a misplaced pint-size flip-flop. In sniffing out children, he said, he relies on his three decades as an officer.

But it is when he strides up to a home, dressed in shorts, sandals and a polo shirt, and knocks on the door that his detective work really begins. He tells the suspected violator that a neighbor has complained and he asks gentle questions to get to the bottom of things, all the while peering around for signs of youthful activity. His work is helped by a simple reality: children are hard to hide.

They leave tracks and make unique sounds. Newborns bellow, toddlers shriek and teenagers play music that is not typical around Sun City.

Mr. Szentmiklosi and his fellow child-hunters have their work cut out for them. The number of age violations in Sun City, a town of more than 40,000 residents outside Phoenix, has been rising markedly over the years, from 33 in 2007 to 121 in 2008 to 331 last year, a reflection of a trend at many of the hundreds of age-restricted communities nationwide.

This year’s figures are expected to be even higher, said Mr. Szentmiklosi, who knows that despite his patrols Sun City is probably harboring more children that have not yet been detected. The economic crisis is aggravating the problem, he said, forcing families to take desperate measures to cut costs, even if it means surreptitiously moving into Grandma and Grandpa’s retirement bungalow.

The vigorous search for violators of Sun City’s age rules is about more than keeping loud, boisterous, graffiti-scrawling rug rats from spoiling residents’ golden years, although that is part of it. If Sun City does not police its population, it could lose its special status and be forced to open the floodgates to those years away from their first gray hair.

The end result would be the introduction of schools to Sun City, then higher taxes and, finally, an end to the Sun City that has drawn retirees here for the last half-century.

At 50, Sun City is not old by the standards of Sun City, where the average resident is in his or her early 70s.

To remain a restricted retirement community, at least 80 percent of Sun City’s housing units must have at least one occupant who is 55 or older, allowing for younger spouses or adult children. But the rules are clear on one thing: no one, absolutely no one, who is a teenager, an adolescent, a toddler, a newborn, any form of child, may call Sun City home.

“Visits are O.K. as long as they’re limited,” said Mr. Szentmiklosi, who describes himself as a doting grandfather and insists that he does not have an anti-child bone in his body. “You can have children visit for 90 days per year. That means if you have 10 grandchildren, each one can visit, but they can only stay nine days each.”

Mr. Szentmiklosi, the compliance manager for the Sun City Homeowners Association, said that although the city was scrupulous, it remained compassionate. For instance, it allowed a young woman with an infant who was renting a home without the association’s knowledge a year to move out.

But the association also plays hardball, issuing fines and threatening legal action to pressure youthful violators to leave. One reason Sun City is so vigorous is because of what happened on the other side of 111th Avenue, one of the main roads traversing the neighborhood.

Although Del Webb, who developed Sun City in 1960, gets credit for inventing the idea of a community of active retirees, the concept actually started years before on an adjacent tract in what was called Youngtown. But the developers there were not diligent in drawing up their legal paperwork. A challenge by the family of a teenage boy led the state to strip Youngtown of its age restrictions in 1998.

So on one side of the road, little people can be seen running around. On the other side, many people remember the Great Depression, and not from reading about it in a book.

“It was so much quieter before,” said Librado Martinez, 80, a retired machine operator who lives on the Youngtown side of the line and has to put up with children playing ball in the park in front of his house. “You heard no screams before.”

That peace is what Sun City residents want to keep. They rose up last month to block a charter school, which is not governed by the same rules as other public schools, from moving in.

“They were concerned about children roaming the streets and terrorizing things,” said Marsha Mandurraga, who works for the school’s founder.

To prevent future incursions, Sun City’s leaders are using their clout to urge state legislators to change the law to keep Sun City school-free.

“I’ve raised kids,” said Chris Merlav, 61, breathing through an oxygen tank and resting on the side of a Sun City pool designed for walking, not swimming. “After a while you get to the point where you don’t want to be bothered anymore.”

Mr. Merlav, who moved here from Rochester, had evidence at hand that he was not anti-child. His 20-year-old stepdaughter, Danielle Anastasia, was lounging in the pool with him. She understood the desire of Sun City residents to be with people their own age. “It’s like me hanging with my college friends,” she said.

Some of Sun City’s more hard-line anti-child activists can sound as though they somehow bypassed youth completely.

“There are people here who have never had children, don’t care for children and don’t particularly want children around,” said Jan Ek, who runs Sun City’s seven recreation centers, eight golf courses, two bowling centers and assorted other entertainment venues, some of which sometimes open up for child visitors.

At Sun City’s museum, the resident historian, Bill Pearson, 62, played a videotape used to lure retirees to the development in the 1960s.

The narrator said then what many residents still say now: “Of course we love them and enjoy their visits, but you deserve a little rest after raising your own.”