A federal magistrate has ordered several property owners in Lake County's luxury Bella Collina community to pick up their developers' legal tab, which is expected to be hundreds of thousands of dollars.
U.S. District Magistrate Judge Philip Lammens on Tuesday ordered four property owners to pay the legal expenses, saying their complaints that DCS Investment Holdings illegally controlled the property owners association were not supported by facts.
"The complaint lists twelve crimes under Florida law that defendants are alleged to have committed with no explanation of when or how these crimes were committed," he wrote in his order this week.
Most of the original half dozen complainants have dropped off the lawsuit but are still ordered to pay the developers' legal fees, some of which are based on rates of $400 an hour. Property owner Michael Choo, of CS Business Systems Inc., recently wrote an apology letter for participating in the lawsuit, saying he did not know all the facts or the law.
Orlando attorney Tim McCullough represented the property owners and said they are weighing their options. The courts have appeared to side with the developers, he said.
"They are certainly going to declare victory but, at the end of the day, they still have to deal with the public perception of what they've done," he said.
The judge ordered the developers' attorneys to refile attorney fees with more detail, which McCullough estimated to be in the "hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars."
The wrangling over Bella Collina legal fees is the latest in years of litigation between property owners and the developer, who prevailed in about 400 lawsuits against property owners who were delinquent paying on association fees.
Many owners purchased lakeview lots, sometimes for $1 million, from original developer Bobby Ginn just before the real-estate downturn of 2007. After the market crashed, DCS bought the golf club and other Bella Collina property for about $10 million in 2012, taking charge of the association and its mounting debt from unpaid association fees.
Some owners accumulated debt of more than $100,000 on vacant home sites.