For almost 35 years, Bradenton's Heather Hills Estates has hosted the "Shufflelettes" annual year-end tournament, featuring about 30 women shuffleboard players from five sister mobile home parks in Manatee County.
Nearly all of the women are considered shuffleboard "masters," meaning they are all well over age 40 and some closer to double that.
But on Monday morning, moments after the tournament began, Chris and Rick Stephens, owners of the Heather Hills' shuffleboard court, clubhouse and other amenities, called the Manatee County Sheriff's Office to have all the shuffleboard players not from Heather Hills removed from the property because they had not been pre-approved as guests.
No one was arrested and deputies told the Stephens that the matter was civil and would have to be settled in court, said Dave Bristow, a sheriff's office spokesman.
The tournament was allowed to resume.
Some, however, expressed shock that the law was called.
"We had four deputies and a lieutenant here," said Diana Hug, president of the Heather Hills Property Owners Association. "I really think they didn't want to arrest a bunch of old ladies. I told them if they had to arrest someone, arrest me. But they couldn't arrest me because I live here."
"I was insulted," said Lin
da Tobias of Plantation Village. "We've been playing this tournament here for years and years."
Ethel Michel of Fairlane Acres was so upset she began to tremble when the deputies arrived and escorted her into the office to officially register as a guest.
"We were playing, then all of the sudden we were told to go into the office and sign," Michel said. "All the years we have been shuffling, we have never had to go and sign our names to a sheet. The woman behind the desk was yelling, 'You don't have the right to be here.' I felt like I was trespassing. I won't bring our team back over here."
'Grand moms' out?
Chris Stephens said the reason that the dispute between Heather Hills residents boiled over Monday is because residents have chosen to ignore all their rules over a long period of time.
The Stephenses look at it as a tremendous liability to have guests not sign a waiver to come to the community. There are signs posted everywhere at the clubhouse stating that.
"We are not trying to be the bad guys here," Chris Stephens said Monday. "The reason we don't allow the general public in the clubhouse is because of liability. We live in a litigious world now. If someone falls, they will sue us."
Heather Hills Estates is located at 4925 Third St. W., off Fifth Street West between Cortez Road and State Road 70.
Chris and Rick Stephens paid $1.8 million in January 2008 to acquire the Heather Hills' amenity package, including the clubhouse, shuffleboard courts and buffer area from former owner Keith Starkey, Chris Stephens said.
The Stephenses also own the water rights and the residents get their water through them.
Having an outside third-party amenity owner is somewhat unusual since residents usually buy it from the original owner or developer.
"Mr. Starkey gave the Heather Hills Homeowners Association first right to buy the amenities and buffer zone for, maybe, $1.5 million," Chris Stephens said. "They thought it was too much money. So he found a buyer and the homeowners association sued Starkey and said he didn't offer it to them. But he did."
Starkey won the court case but lost that buyer due to the court proceedings. He didn't lose Rick and Chris Stephens.
The Stephenses collect a $634-per-owner annual fee from almost all of the 354 mobile park owners for use of the clubhouse, shuffleboard court and other amenities. About 20 of the homes are owned by the Stephenses themselves, which they rent out.
"This past summer we asked them not to have their shuffleboard tournament," Chris Stephens said. "The shuffleboard court is for the use of residents and not Manatee County. They decided to have their tournament anyway and invite guests who were not approved."
Allen Bobo, the attorney for the Heather Hills' homeowners association, said Monday that he believes the residents can invite whomever they want.
"I don't believe the Stephenses are right," Bobo said. "I believe the residents have the right to invite guests. And as for having them register, the management office has limited hours. I think Chris is only there several days a week."
Bobo believes the Stephenses must give the residents more notice of a rule change.
"The provisions of the Mobile Home Act apply to mobile home subdivisions such as this," Bobo said. "If the rules were going to change for the use of the amenities package, those changes in rules would have required a 90-day notice and that notice would have to go to all lot owners and the board of directors of the association. I know of no rule change notice provided by Chris Stephens or anyone else regarding the use of the amenity package."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @ RichardDymond.