COURTESY : St. Petersburg Times
HERITAGE ISLES - It's 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, and it's shaping up as a typical night for Barry Reynolds, the guard at the Grand Isle Drive gated entrance to this community of more than 1,000 homes.
A car pulls into the visitor lane. Reynolds automatically presses the button to lift the gate's aluminum arm. The car drives past the gate, barely slowing down.
A car pulls into the resident lane. Reynolds doesn't push any button. The car stops. The driver fumbles for an access card, then swipes it. As the arm goes up, the car enters.
Car after car, night after night, Reynolds plays along in a ritual that questions the fundamentals of his job.
"It doesn't make sense," Reynolds said. "The visitors get in faster than the residents."
Put another way, Heritage Isles homeowners spend $122,000 every year to operate and maintain a gated security system that obstructs them from entering, while it allows strangers to zip in without interference.
If there's a Twilight Zone in New Tampa, it could well be at the two gated entrances of Heritage Isles, where it seems up is down, in is out and gates are open, even when they're closed - unless you happen to live there.
Not everyone is thrilled with this alternate universe.
About two months ago, Jim Dowswell was driving home when he pulled into the resident lane. He said the arm normally goes up, as it was supposed to after Tampa officials ordered the gates to open automatically last year. The streets in Heritage Isles are public, and therefore can't be obstructed, according to Florida law.
But as Dowswell's car pulled into the entrance, the gate arm remained stubbornly closed. By the time he knew something was amiss, it was too late. The arm rattled off his windshield and scraped across his car.
"The arm just whacked my car," Dowswell said.
That wasn't going to be the end of it, not for someone like Dowswell, who in the past year has organized an ad hoc committee of homeowners critical of the community's developer, Lennar Corp.
Dowswell wrote a letter to Mayor Pam Iorio asking why Lennar was allowed to restrict residents from entering the community. He enclosed a flier signed by Heritage Isles "club management." The flier states that gate entry cards could be bought for $5 and a remote gate opener could be purchased for $25.
"Please do not harass the gate attendants," the flier pleaded. "They are only following our orders."
This message from management seemed to conflict with an agreement Heritage Isles signed with Tampa in October that allowed the community to keep the gates as long as they didn't impede cars from entering.
A close inspection of that agreement, however, shows that Heritage Isles is following the letter of it, if not the spirit.
According to the agreement, the gate arm of the visitor lane is to stay upright or the guard has to raise it automatically. On Wednesday night, Reynolds dutifully did just that, raising the arm in this lane each time a car approached.
On the resident lane, however, which is right next to the visitor lane, the agreement states that the gate arm may remain in the down position "for access by residents only."
That's it. Nothing in the agreement says it must open automatically for residents. And on Wednesday night, it didn't.
Each resident who turned into the lane used access cards for entry. When a nonresident pulled into the same lane, the gate remained down. Only until the driver rolled down the window and told Reynolds to open the gate did Reynolds press the button to raise the arm.
This approach has caught Tampa officials a little off guard.
They never expected that Heritage Isles would charge residents for access to their own community, said Nina Mabilleau, a project management engineer in the city's transportation division.
"This is a new situation," Mabilleau said.
In an April 28 letter, Mabilleau wrote to Bill Kouwenhoven, communities manager for Lennar's North Florida Land Development Division, and reminded him that no member of the public was to be denied entry.
A pedestrian gate at Sandy Pointe Drive, Mabilleau noted, had been locked, violating the July agreement. School buses regularly drop children off at this location.
"These locks should preferably be completely removed, or at least disabled," Mabilleau wrote.
As for the payment for entry by Heritage Isles homeowners, Mabilleau acknowledged that the agreements didn't address that.
But the gates are still public domain, she pointed out, so if Heritage Isles is charging for access cards or remote controls, that needs to be permitted by the city. That would require Lennar to fill out an application, have it reviewed by the city, and then approved. As of last week, Lennar hadn't filed any permit applications, Mabilleau said.
The city didn't consider this issue to be a big deal, Mabilleau said.
"Vehicle access seems to be okay," she said. "(Lennar) probably just needs to tell residents they can use the public side of the gate."
Has Lennar instructed homeowners that they don't need to enter in the residents' side?
It's hard to tell. Kouwenhoven did not return phone calls. An obvious question would be: If no cars entered on the residents' side, what would be the point of having it?
Dowswell said he didn't get anything from management telling him to use the public side. Lennar still advertises the community as "gated," which makes it more attractive for some home buyers.
On Wednesday night, most of the cars entering the community used the resident side.
"Some of the residents are smart enough to come over here to the visitor lane," Reynolds said. "But you'd be surprised by how many use the resident side."
Although he admits his job may not make much sense, Reynolds said it beats having to keep the gates open.
"If the gates were up all the time," he said, "there'd be no sense of me being here."