Caring for a neighborhood: The story of Lemon Tree
By Stephanie Allen
Orlando Sentinel Contact Reporter
February 5, 2017
A jetliner roars through the clouds, momentarily silencing the chirping birds outside Suzy Spivey’s quaint one-bedroom condo just south of downtown Orlando. She bought the home when she was in her mid-20s and became the talk of all her friends, able to afford a place of her own, overlooking a golf course and a lake.
A lot has changed in the past three decades.
The golf course was sold to developers. The lake has all but turned to muck. Roofs deteriorated, balconies crumbled. And Spivey’s once-coveted home in Lemon Tree Condominiums sits next to what is now one of Orange County's most volatile neighborhoods. But she and a group of dedicated neighbors are determined to stop the despair from spreading.
They aren’t giving up on their community.
Lemon Tree is their private sanctuary in an area known for crime, but most importantly, it’s their home. Now on the upswing after nearly being knocked down by the mortgage crisis and recession, residents have come together to clean up the complex, watch for people who don’t belong and make much-needed cosmetic improvements in hopes of restoring pride.
“In the last year, I’ve seen hope,” Spivey said. “I see hope that we’re going to come back, and I have no doubt about that.”
Lemon Tree Condominiums in Orlando
Time, decline and a recession
Lemon Tree sits on the southeast shores of Lake Catherine in Holden Heights, just south of the notorious and long-troubled Tymber Skan on the Lake condos off Texas and Rio Grande avenues.
In their heyday, shortly after construction in the early-1970s, both complexes were sought-after places to live. They’re less than 10 minutes from downtown Orlando and about 20 minutes from Orlando International Airport. The complex overlooked the Alhambra Golf Club until it closed in the early ’90s. The Mall at Millenia opened nearby in 2003.
“This was a beautiful place to live, so safe,” Suzy Spivey said. “And Tymber Skan was as well, believe it or not. It was gorgeous; it was absolutely beautiful.”
But over the years, maintenance throughout the complex started falling behind. Repairs weren’t made and landscapes were left untended. Then the recession hit.
At least 20 owners in the 168-unit Lemon Tree filed for foreclosure between 2008 and 2010, Orange County court records show. Others simply walked away, leaving numerous units vacant and falling in disrepair. Residents say at least a dozen units sat vacant at the end of 2016.
Property records show one-bedroom condos are selling in the low-to-mid $20,000 range — a few thousand dollars more than what they first went for in 1976.
The same thing happened at Tymber Skan, but Orange County Code Enforcement manager Bob Spivey, who is not related to Suzy, said Lemon Tree has one thing its neighbors lacked: an active HOA.
Residents said their relationship with the association was rocky over the years, but a new management company, Premier Association Management of Central Florida, took over in late 2015. The company has plans to paint the buildings, fix the community’s pool, add grills and update the front entrance. Larry Holbrook, vice president and co-owner, said he is thrilled to see the residents taking pride in their homes.
A new HOA board has also stepped up to collect monthly dues from more residents, getting them the funds needed to repair the aging buildings. Dues on a two-bedroom unit were a little more than $300 at the end of 2016.
Bob Spivey said he can’t remember an association in Tymber Skan ever making any of those large-scale improvements, so conditions only worsened. Residents had no choice but to leave.
Orange County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Bruce McMullen said the woods that took over the golf course Suzy Spivey once loved most likely help keep crime down in Lemon Tree. People out looking for a car door handle to pull on or a home to burglarize probably don’t even realize the complex is tucked back there, he said.
Records show the number of reported crimes has fluctuated, but hit a five-year high in 2016, with deputies responding there at least 20 times, mostly for vehicle break-ins or home burglaries.
But McMullen said those numbers are still low considering Lemon Tree is surrounded by areas that have been hotspots for crime.
Community cleanup day at Lemon Tree
There were at least two shootings, one of them fatal, less than a mile away during the first week of 2017. That type of violence is fairly typical, McMullen said, and because deputies are constantly responding to serious crimes, Lemon Tree doesn’t always get the preventative law enforcement attention it deserves.
McMullen, who oversees the deputies who patrol Holden Heights, said the Sheriff’s Office has a group of crime prevention deputies who work with Lemon Tree and other complexes in the area to find out where increased patrols are most needed. Often times, only a small group of residents agree to help, he said, but Lemon Tree seems to be different and has consistently kept a line of communication open.
They need to keep doing that if the residents want to stop crime from taking over like it did in Tymber Skan.
Officials estimate fewer than 100 people still live in that neighboring complex; each weekday afternoon, children can be seen walking down the pothole-filled road, past a boarded-up and decaying guard station to their homes.
In early January, Christmas decorations still clung to barred windows and doors of several units. Neighboring buildings were striped with yellow caution tape or boarded up and marked with bright orange stickers labeling the structures a hazard.
County officials started demolishing some of Tymber Skan’s most dilapidated or burned-out buildings in 2013 after squatters took over and crime spiked. Records show there were nearly 400 reported incidents, mostly burglaries, in the complex between 2011 and 2013. Deputies responded to just 39 incidents in Lemon Tree during that same time.
Four of those incidents were robberies involving a weapon, one was an aggravated battery and one was a carjacking, records show. All of the other reported crimes in Lemon Tree were burglaries.
Resident pride at Lemon Tree Condominiums
Officials say Lemon Tree is a far cry from Tymber Skan, but it has had its share of problems. There was a lengthy battle between the complex, association and county over what to do with a building destroyed by fire in 2009, and as of early 2017, it faced a $65,000 fine for damaged roofs and unsafe balconies, according to county code enforcement.
Clarisa Sanchez, who has lived in Lemon Tree for almost a year, said the HOA board has already fixed a few roofs and crews are finalizing plans for more. She hopes finally getting rid of tattered blue tarps will help brighten the complex — something she has been working hard to do herself.
She isn’t on the board but has helped spark the community’s renewed desire for a safer neighborhood, and in August helped organize a clean-up to pick up trash and pull weeds. More than a dozen neighbors showed up, she said.
Sanchez, 34, said she decided to buy in the complex so she could own a place without falling into debt. Property records show she bought her two-bedroom condo for just under $30,000 —$8,200 less than what Suzy Spivey paid for her one-bedroom, 642-square-foot home in 1988.
Sanchez, a Peru native, said she hopes a cleaner image will attract more young professionals and families also looking to own a home.
While sitting in her living room one sunny afternoon, she carefully watched a suspicious-looking car pull into a parking spot across the street. She’d never seen the driver or the older, rusted blue sedan before.
She continued talking, but kept an eye on the vehicle as a shirtless man with baggy jeans sitting low around his knees walked up. “It’s like he’s selling drugs or something,” she said. “Did you see that?”
The man stood on the passenger side of the vehicle and looked around before reaching into his pocket. He stuck his arm through the window and handed something to the older, disheveled man.
“That is so weird. It’s drugs for sure,” she said.
Sanchez unlocked one of the living room windows, slid it open just a crack and picked up a bullhorn she keeps nearby.
With the press of a button, the horn blasted a deafening alarm. The man looked around and then casually walked between two buildings and out of sight. The car waited a few minutes before driving away. No one was arrested — and records show deputies didn’t respond to any reports of drugs in the complex in 2016.
While walking through the complex later that afternoon, she noticed a teal and white pack of Newport cigarettes on the ground near a parked car. An older man in the driver’s seat held a lit cigarette out the window, while talking to someone sitting on the metal steps outside a condo Sanchez said she knew had been taken over by squatters. Without hesitating, she walked up to the car and confronted the driver about the trash.
He stammered a bit, before his friend spoke up, saying he’d take care of it. Sanchez walked away, but made sure to check it was actually gone when she passed by again half an hour later.
“If I have a kid, I don’t want him to play outside. Maybe they find the little bags that had drugs on it, or the used condoms, that would be horrible,” Sanchez said. “We want a safe community for all our owners, our renters, everybody who lives here.”
Going through changes
Suzy Spivey sits outside during warm afternoons in a plastic lawn chair, her feet resting against a green electric transformer box behind her home. It’s quiet, for the most part, until a cross-eyed kitten named Snowbaby rustles leaves at the edge of the woods.
Spivey, who used to sell timeshares but no longer works, wakes each morning before dawn to feed the stray cats, left behind by residents long gone, and makes sure they always have full bellies before bed.
She doesn’t get out as much as she used to, but she still reminisces about fishing on Lake Catherine and meeting friends at the old golf course’s clubhouse for drinks.
“I’m 56 now. I was 26 when I moved in here,” she said. “I’ve seen this place go through all kinds of changes. And I never want to leave here.”
Premier Association Management of Central Florida, Inc.
3112 W Lake Mary Blvd * Lake Mary, FL 32746
375 East Hwy 50 * Clermont, FL 34711
Phone: (407) 333-7787 * Fax: (407) 333-7767