About Seven Lakes

There is a place in Southwest Florida that truly does have it ALL, at one affordable price. 
Seven Lakes Condominium Association
2010 Community of the Year (Former GM Jim Schneider) 

Well, Well, Well--
Well-rounded, Well-done, Well-respected

As Seven Lakes Condominium Association prepares to celebrate their 40th anniversary later this year, they have received recognition that they are indeed aging well. They have been named the 2010 FLCAJ/Becker & Poliakoff Community of the Year, as well as the winner of the Environmental Protection and Preservation category and Community Relations and Communications category for larger communities.

This 1,096-unit association featuring golf and tennis covers 170 acres in Fort Myers, Florida. They began as an adult community for those over age 40 in 1970, and matured to a 55+ community in 1989 when the federal government definition of adult communities was revised. But age is just a number, as (former) manager Jim Schneider remarks, "We have people in their 90s playing golf and tennis, and playing quite well, too!"
As a finalist in every category of the Communities of Excellence contest last year, and the 2009 Community of the Year for the CAI South Gulf Coast Chapter, Seven Lakes' honor might not seem unexpected. But Jim says, "We were as shocked as anybody there. This is not a new development, and we were in competition with some pretty impressive communities. To come out on top was really an honor, and we were very pleased! With all the negatives from assessments and expenses, just to be recognized is good for us. It helps all the communities--we will be looking at what other communities are doing to see how we can improve."

The mindset of seeing how they can improve is behind the success of the community. Of course it takes money, currently a scarce commodity, to just maintain the same standards, much less make improvements. Jim explains, "The Board's thought is that if you cut back you'll be in a difficult situation and making your housing market even worse because nobody will want to come here. Right now, because of the way we keep things running, the property looks good and we won't have to play catch-up when the economy improves. The last Board election was reassuring in showing that this is the direction the owners want to go."

Keeping a large group of people cohesive is largely a matter of communication. Jim states, "Seven Lakes is a multi-condominium association; it has only one board but it has 29 condominiums. Rather than the Board meeting with 29 different groups of people they each have a representative. It's an unofficial office that's not in our documents, but it's our communication line to that building. At the condominium representative meetings we may discuss building issues, or have the police or fire department in for presentations. The representatives go back and meet with their unit owners to convey information from the meeting. The whole 'condo rep' system is very important to the operation here." Jim explains that the condo rep typically is the first contact for residents to come to with minor issues.  "If people lock themselves out, or have small disputes, the condo rep handles those problems. I love every one of them!"

The budget, which runs $6 million, is discussed individually with each condo rep rather than being addressed at a group meeting. The association has used their closed- circuit television channel to improve communication from the Board also. Cliff Jordan, the past president of the Seven Lakes Board who nominated the community for the awards, says, "Our Board meetings are shown on our closed-circuit television channel. This allows all those unable to attend the meeting to have full access to the information and is the biggest improvement is our communication. Many of our residents have limited mobility or they are caring for someone who cannot be left alone." The board meetings are aired five or six times during the month and Cliff notes, "We've been getting feedback from owners that they appreciate seeing firsthand how things operate."

Board workshops are held monthly to learn the opinions of owners, and committee meetings and Board meetings welcome input from residents. A biweekly full-color newsletter provides a calendar with Board workshops, Board meetings, condominium meetings, condo rep meetings, committee meetings, and social activities for the residents to choose from. And while not as fast as a flying rumor, bulletin boards posted at each condominium provide another means of notifying residents of business and social activities.

Seven Lakes has six board members, so three spots are vacated each year due to the required twoyear limit. Candidates for the Board submit a resume' to the owners and participate in a "Meet the Candidates Night" where they present their ideas and answer any questions. "This year five candidates ran for the Board," says Jim "though sometimes we have six or seven, and sometimes just enough to fill the seats."

Serving has been a tradition at Seven Lakes since its inception, both inside the community and throughout the local area. Cliff explains, "A number of the first residents volunteered with local organizations and involved their friends. As they moved on, others picked up where the previous volunteers had left off." Residents volunteer their services at the local library, hospital, court, visitor's center, election polling stations, schools, and fine arts organizations. "One resident has been volunteering at a local elementary school for 23 years," Cliff recalls. Residents also volunteer time to Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army, Meals on Wheels, and soup kitchens.

Clubs within Seven Lakes have financially supported a variety of causes, from the Heart Association to "Alive in the Mountains," a mission in Kentucky. A group of residents sew hats for newborns and quilts and lap robes for local patients. The men's golf club has provided golf equipment to a local school.  Jim points out, "The association doesn't get involved in charities because technically we shouldn't; we can't give money to any charity out of maintenance fees." But they do facilitate the residents' giving to programs such as Toys for Tots, Santa's Sleigh, the Harry Chapin Food Bank, and the blood bank onsite.  The association's 600-seat auditorium is made available to non-profit groups for practices and performances, and their trailer has also been approved for use by a non-profit organization.  Many of the activities of Seven Lakes itself are also dependent on the generosity of the residents with their time. "This place survives because of its volunteers," says Jim. "So many people give so much of their time. Thirty percent of the people volunteer here in Seven Lakes in one way or another." Residents serve on committees, in clubs, including the national service organization FISH, which assists those with health limitations by lending equipment and providing transportation as needed.  A Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) composed of volunteers has been developed to help with disaster preparedness and response. There are 13 team members who have received training, "though hopefully they'll never have to use it," remarks Jim. "A couple of these gentlemen are active in the CERT organization and have been called to do work with FEMA because of their training," Jim reports.

Seven Lakes won the Environmental Conservation and Protection category, with many of those practices also saving energy and water. One of the simplest ways to save energy, and thus money, has been through switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL) in all common areas. They are also testing use of LED lighting to find a product with suitable longevity and light output, for further savings. To save on cooling costs, reflective coating has been applied to the roofs of several buildings, assisted by FP&L's rebate program. "We don't get their energy bills," Jim notes, "but the people on the top floors have reported substantial savings."
With six pools, heating has been a $45,000 annual expense. Their propane heaters have been replaced with heat pumps, costing $4-5,000 each, which has lowered the energy costs for pool heating to $20,000 per year. "It will pay for itself in 1 1/2 years!" exclaims Cliff.

Replacement of windows affects both energy usage and hurricane resistance. New windows are following the Miami-Dade code, though energy savings are not yet clear. Residents are informed of the benefits and encouraged to switch to CFL bulbs, high SEER-rated air conditioning units, FP&L on-call air conditioning unit switches to reduce demand in peak usage periods, Energy Star appliances, and energysaving windows.

The Seven Lakes community has recyclable glass, paper, and plastic picked up at larger buildings throughout the community for recycling by the county. "We used to collect our own stuff and sell it, but with the expense of staff and equipment this saves us money. And, we're paying for less trash disposal," Jim notes. The community has one employee strictly to handle trash, driving a "trash train" of dumpsters to the compactor for emptying, pick-up, and re-use.

With a golf course and grounds to tend to with limited water, and responsibility for 14 lakes, Seven Lakes has been aggressive in monitoring and controlling water use and quality. "Water is going to be a bigger issue as time goes on, so we're trying to be pro-active," Jim states. The association has tried some Southwest-style landscaping, and they plan to expand it to larger areas. They have been using native palm trees, bougainvillea, crotons, viburnum, and juniper as well as ground cover. One issue Jim sees is, "People like to see pretty flower and color, but a lot of plants that are native to Florida are just green!" Some of the plants which are being removed include Melaleuca, which Jim explains, "is a tree that developers originally used to dry up swampy ground because it sucks up a lot of water. Other similar plants and invasive species, such as Brazilian pepper trees and Australian pine, are being replaced with
drought resistant plants.

To maintain water quality standards, Seven Lakes installed a $60,000 water treatment system for the wastewater generated from golf course activities. Jim explains, "All of our golf course equipment is hosed off and that water goes through an enzyme treatment. There's a lot of fertilizers used on a golf course [which are detrimental to water quality] so the washwater is recycled in the station and the solid waste is removed."

With the south Water Management District limits on irrigation, Jim found, "We're well within our water quantity restrictions, but there was not enough time permitted to get all our watering done. To water more area at the same time, water pressure was increased and areas were re-zoned. To deliver water where and when it was needed, $30,000 was invested in pop-up sprinkler heads. Since the plants' need for water is dependent on more factors than just rainfall, the community is experimenting with ground moisture indicators to fine-tune their irrigation.

Seven Lakes monitors water usage by each building to control water waste. "When the water meters read high for a month we'll go investigate. We've found several leaks that way, and a couple of leaking toilets can use a lot of water," Jim points out.

With over half of the residents gone for part of the year, Seven Lakes has developed a number of rules addressing care and handling of vacant units. "We have rules defining negligence: every unit needs to be checked every two weeks, for water leaks mainly--but also for mold and to see if the air conditioner and refrigerator are running properly," Jim recounts. "Also, if you're gone over one day the water to the unit must be shut off. A washing machine hose or toilet can break, and we've had cases where that happened. According to the documents, you're negligent and responsible for fixing it if that happens. If you don't have rules, the association has to pay for the negligence of one person, so we want to avoid that."

Seven Lakes also has a 5 1/2 acre area along the golf course which they have maintained as a buffer and habitat for various animals. "The people voted to keep it natural," Cliff says, rather than develop it in any way.

While they did not receive an award for their safety and security program this year, Cliff exclaims, "We thought that safety and security was our strongest point!" Their community has not had any break-ins for over five years, which does validate the effectiveness of their security measures. The entire property is enclosed, with infrared scanning of the perimeter. Access by the front gate is manned 24 hours/day, while the back gate is guarded for the 12 hours it is open. Residents' vehicles are bar-coded, with temporary passes for visitors, and the entrances are under camera surveillance. A guard roves the premises 24 hours/day recording specified locations digitally and checking building elevator phones. With monthly safety meetings for employees, closed circuit TV coverage, bulletin board notices, and association meetings addressing safety, the residents and employees are kept alert and aware of their part in keeping Seven Lakes out of the crime news.

The community has had a disaster-preparedness plan since 1997, but Hurricane Charley prompted minor changes. The community now has a Community Emergency Response Team which can act as a security force if local authorities are unable to respond. Their plan addresses securing community items which might become airborne, communication, emergency generators, fallen tree removal, photographing damage, and dealing with insurance carriers. Cliff adds, "We recently built a storm-safe storage facility to house all of our records so if there is a question about residency or buildings, the information is easily accessible for public safety agencies and insurance companies. Many residents have prepared by obtaining hurricane shutters, impact-resistant windows, and personal generators, which are tested with the association generators in June. Residents are provided with checklists to help them deal with various contingencies ranging from evacuation to pet survival.

Seven Lakes has built on their experience over the years, learning what works for their community.  Jim points out, "Our rules and regulations are 25 pages long, and we've got a plethora of stuff in there!" Jim finds one of their current challenges to be traffic flow. "With cars, bikes, pedestrians, and 700 golf carts, you could have a disaster at any moment--though so far we've been fortunate," he is relieved to say. In every area Seven Lakes has the goal of continuing to improve, and Jim already has his plan: "We hope to win this award again some day!"