Residents of the members-only Crystal Falls Ranch roughly 10 miles east of downtown Sonora are in the midst of a raging dispute over the homeowners association’s finances.
A small group of homeowners and one member of the Crystal Falls Association’s Board of Directors say they believe the $260,100 in annual membership dues is being mismanaged and allegations of misconduct that resulted in a recently settled lawsuit against the HOA are being swept under the rug.
Meanwhile, those being accused say all of the allegations tearing at the seams of the community are untrue and that their critics are purposely spreading falsehoods on social media in an attempt to influence the board elections that are underway.
The heated battle is contrasted by the quaint nature of the setting in which it’s playing out.
Crystal Falls Ranch is fashioned as an idyllic rural mountain community with more than 800 homes ranging in value from $150,000 to $450,000.
Members have exclusive access to a host of perks that include two aerated lakes, horse stables, basketball and tennis courts, a clubhouse, gym, and community garden, all of which are maintained through the $75 quarterly fees charged to each of the total 867 lots in the association.
Board Treasurer Michael Dalby, whose two-year term began in January, said he’s attempted to raise concerns about the way the association’s finances have been handled by the board for more than year only to be met by opposition at every turn.
“I started looking into some questions I had about finances and it just got deeper and deeper,” said Dalby, a retired teacher who’s lived in the community for nearly a decade.
Financial concerns come to light
One of Dalby’s chief complaints is what he views as an inordinate amount of the association’s money being spent on subsidizing use of the horse stables, which includes an arena where members can get horse rides during summer weekends.
Dalby calculated that the 94 rides given last year cost the association about $371 per ride. He also said the $250 monthly fee charged to the four members who board horses at the stables aren’t offsetting the associated cost.
Dalby’s treasurer’s report that covers through Nov. 13 showed the district with less than $2,000 in its checking account and about $13,700 in reserves, which he says is far less than the savings when he left the board after serving as president in 2012.
“I wanted to bring up the fact that we’re running out of money and it was being spent wrongfully,” Dalby said. “I had no other agenda other than that.”
Dalby began expressing his worries about the association’s financial situation in an open letter he sent out to members prior to being re-elected to the board last year.
Crystal Falls resident Gloria Lucas said she and her husband, Ken, saw the letter from Dalby but “buried their heads in the sand” until the treasurer posted about the ongoing issues on the “Crystal Falls Community Network,” a private Facebook group not affiliated with the association.
The couple attended the Sept. 21 meeting where the board approved raising next year’s membership dues by 20 percent to $90 per quarter, or $360 annually, in order to help bring in more money for maintaining the association’s amenities.
Minutes from the Sept. 21 board meeting stated that Dalby abstained from the vote to increase the dues, while the other four directors voted in favor.
A short time later, the Lucases also learned of a then-ongoing lawsuit against the association filed by a former horse wrangler who alleged wrongful termination and workplace harassment. That’s when they decided to become more vocal at the meetings.
“We wanted the board to be transparent until all 867 members knew where we were at financially,” Gloria Lucas said. “We also wanted them to be open with the lawsuit and just tell everybody everything, because that’s our money.”
Lawsuit alleges workplace violations
The lawsuit was filed in Tuolumne County Superior Court on Jan. 27 by Jamie Bridges, who is listed in the complaint as a former wrangler for the association.
Bridges works as a teacher at a preschool in Sonora. The school’s website states she graduated from Feather River College in 2013 with four separate degrees in equine science, general agriculture, agricultural sciences and liberal arts, with an emphasis in child development.
In the civil complaint, Bridges alleged that she was wrongfully terminated out of retaliation for reporting workplace violations including sexual harassment, discrimination, workplace violence, assault, and battery.
The complaint described alleged incidents of sexual harassment in which an unspecified board member discussed women’s weight, as well as another who allegedly made inappropriate comments about her while she was taking care of horses.
Lydia Welch, wife of board vice president John Welch, is named in the complaint over an alleged physical confrontation between the her and Bridges in October 2015, but Lydia Welch’s name was later removed from the lawsuit after it was determined she wasn’t an employee of the association.
The lawsuit is due to be dismissed after both sides reached a confidential settlement agreement on Nov. 8, according to court records.
Rich Painter, president of the association’s board, said he received a letter from the association’s attorney, Goldie Davidoff, that stated:
“While Crystal Falls and the board maintain that the claims are without merit, it was felt that resolution was in the best interest of all parties involved. The board will do its best to answer any questions that members may have, but the parties are legally prohibited from discussing the terms of the agreement.”
Bridges also declined to comment on the settlement because of the confidentiality agreement, but said she was happy to put it behind her.
Painter said many of the current directors were not on the board at the time of the alleged incidents, all of which he maintained were not true. He believes the concerns over the association’s finances are overblown and bordering on defamation.
“They’re stirring the pot and don’t want to lick the spoon,” he said of the members who have complained. “You can tell someone anything if they’re gullible and at least make them believe it for awhile.”
Directors fire back
Painter said the board had to raise the dues primarily because of the rising cost of doing business as opposed to overspending on one amenity over another.
He believes some would like to see the horse stables shut down in favor of other uses for the money, though such a move would require approval from two-thirds of members.
“Our entire purpose here is to provide the amenities that we’re given,” Painter said. “You might have one person who loves the lake but hates the (horse) barn, and I have to hear that at every meeting.”
Lydia Welch said she has been a “nervous wreck” over people making accusations against her and her husband on social media.
Welch, who has lived in the neighborhood for the past five years, said she was mistaken for an employee of the association because of how often she volunteered at the horse stables. She denies ever harming Bridges.
“It’s over and done with, but they have crucified me,” she said. “They’re playing dirty.”
Tim Pearl, who serves on the board and is running for re-election, said he believes much of the board’s time since he was appointed to fill a vacancy in June has been focused on “taking care of this small amount of people who are destroying families.”
Pearl said making sure all amenities are well maintained is his top priority.
“These amenities dictate what my house is worth in some ways because people come here for them,” he said. “If they get rid of them, my house won’t be as desirable to buy.”
Welch is also running for the board. Her candidate statement sent to all property owners in the association stated that she can’t offer “a lot of ‘Book Knowledge,’ but I can offer a lot of Common Sense and Wisdom when making decisions.”
The others running for the board include Dave de Villers, a self-described professional program manager, Jeannette Sedlemeyer, a Crystal Falls resident for 17 years, Marife Wood, a former sales executive with a degree in business management, and Douglas Satterfield, a firefighter and paramedic for the Stockton Fire Department.
Ballots are due back to the association by Dec. 15.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.