The push to mend fences

By Melissa Harris 
Posted November 14, 2003 

The only thing Susanna Gedaro wanted was a fence that shielded one side of her house southwest of Orlando.

After her homeowners association denied her request, she documented 13 houses in her neighborhood with "illegal" fences like the one she wanted.

When the association rejected her request again, she built the fence anyway.

The board sent letters threatening to sue her twice, to which Gedaro replied in June, "If this persecution continues, we would be more than happy to take this before a judge."

She hasn't heard from the association since, but Gedaro, who lives south of Big Sand Lake , is still bothered by what she considers the arbitrary manner in which the board has conducted its affairs.

She has joined a growing number of residents statewide who are frustrated by associations staffed with untrained neighbors applying rules willy-nilly -- and the fights that can ensue.

Complaints and horror stories that have included hidden cameras and even threats of violence are becoming so frequent that the Legislature has created a task force to develop ideas that would 

Susanna Gedaro built her fence anyway when her neighborhood association told her she couldn't. She argued that other homeowners got away with similar fences. When the association threatened to sue, her response was: Go ahead. (JOHN RAOUX/ORLANDO SENTINEL)
improve relations between homeowners and associations.

It meets for the first time in Orlando today.

During Gedaro's three-year battle, she amassed a foot-high stack of correspondence among state agencies in Tallahassee, her association, attorneys and groups trying to lobby for more regulation.

She also acquired a political cartoon that claims that the Italian Fascist Party, Khmer Rouge and Taliban all began as neighborhood homeowners associations.

Associations wield muscle

Associations, which can cost members hundreds of dollars a month, manage all of the public spaces in a neighborhood, including clubhouses, pools, entrance signs, golf courses and private streets. They dictate everything from how to fly the American flag to size limits on pets to where residents can park their cars.

In addition to pets and parking, process rounds out the three P's -- the most notorious sources of conflict.

Associations also are charged with enforcing the rules. Failure to comply can result in a lien being placed on a home, which blocks any future sale.

Membership is required upon transfer of a deed.

Unhappy residents have two options: sue or get out of town.

"There are a number of people who don't appreciate community associations of any form, shape or ilk," says Paul Wean, a local attorney who specializes in representing boards. "If they don't like them, they ought not to live in communities that have them."

About 40 million affected

Almost all new houses in the Sunbelt are built under strict rules called covenants, which are written by developers' attorneys before any houses are sold and govern the appearance of neighborhoods long after developers leave.

Enforcement is transferred to a board of directors elected by homeowners.

Nationwide, nearly 250,000 mandatory homeowners associations govern 35 to 40 million people.

Before the mid-1980s, almost no one lived in a neighborhood with such rules. At the time, Evan McKenzie's expertise on homeowners associations was considered eccentric.

But during the next decade, McKenzie, who teaches political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says the country underwent a massive privatization of local government.

As suburban sprawl grew, developers created associations as a token for smaller lot sizes and thus, more homes and profits. Instead of giving homeowners room to build a pool in the back yard, the association provided the funds for a community pool. Instead of having a thicket of woods for hiking, the association built nature trails or paths along golf courses.

Having an association also helps developers secure government approval for growth because they take on some of the burden of upkeep.

"Because lots are so small, what I do affects the property values of my neighbors," Wean said. "There has to be a common entity making sure property values are upheld."

That responsibility, however, has far-reaching consequences.

Functions once performed by municipalities -- street maintenance, code enforcement, parks and sewer systems -- are now being managed by untrained neighbors.

"While local governments must protect civil liberties and have limits, homeowners associations are only limited by their own governing documents," McKenzie says.

Complaints include secret meetings, an unwillingness to submit to recalls or new elections, spying and tattling among neighbors, misappropriation of funds, and arbitrary enforcement.

"There are few businesses out there that, with no credentials, can handle somebody else's money," said Judith Lancaster, executive director of the Community Associations Institute's Mid-Florida Chapter.

With little training, feuds can get out of hand and boards can become overbearing.

In West Boynton, an association put a 16-year-old boy who mowed lawns out of business for running it "out of his home." Residents didn't like the look or noise from the mower, or the sight of his equipment being towed from the back of his golf cart.

In Pebble Creek, near St. Petersburg, there is no acceptable excuse for yellow lawns. After warnings, the association removed and replanted the grass in a front yard, billed the couple $2,200 for the work and sued when they refused to pay. The couple counter-sued.

There are divisions over how to address the issue. The Cyber Citizens for Justice, a grass-roots group pushing for reform, is in one camp, and more established groups, such as the Orange County Homeowners Association, in another.

Jan Bergmann, president of Cyber Citizens, wants to see associations regulated like a utility.

Customers, or residents, would be able to appeal to a statewide governing board for a resolution to a dispute.

The Orange County Homeowners Association, however, prefers the status quo, vowing to oppose any recommendations from the governor's task force for more oversight.

"When you belong to a mandatory homeowners association, you have executed a solemn contract with the person you bought your house from," said Dick Spears, president of the state Ethics Commission and a former president of OCHA. "Trying to get out of that is improper. It's a contract you have with all of your neighbors."

By and large, associations work well, ensuring higher property values, community amenities and non-offensive decor.

Every resident is given a voluminous copy of the neighborhood covenants before buying a home. But more often than not, residents never read them.

"I always have people who say, 'We never joined this club,' " said Lancaster, who trains association boards that ask for help.

"And I have to respond: 'Excuse me, sir. When you bought the property, you joined the club.' "

But all of the training and remedies in the world could not solve Central Florida's most notorious homeowner horror story.

A nasty battle

For almost two years, neighbors in the Southchase Parcel 45 neighborhood in south Orange County have been at war, leading to two lawsuits, one appeal, three repeat violence cases, one criminal prosecution and one malpractice suit against a lawyer in the battle.

It all started in October 2001 when a group of residents recalled the association's board.

The old board sued the new board; the new board counter-sued and won. The old board appealed and lost, and along the way things got ugly.

Upset association members threw dog feces on others' driveways. The judge in one of the cases was mailed a stuffed rat and threatening anonymous letters. One person wrote a letter asking whether the new board president "owned a bullet-proof vest."

Surveillance cameras were installed in residents' garages, and even the church where the board held meetings was sent a letter accusing them of being "The Devils Advocates of the Southchase Parcel 45 Board of Directors."

The church requested that the board move its meetings.

Lawyers won't disclose the settlement but estimated that both sides racked up about $300,000 in legal fees.

"When boards vote other boards out, the pendulum just swings," said Orange County Commissioner Teresa Jacobs, a former president of OCHA.

"When a board is too strict, a new board comes in that ignores the regulation. Then when the next board comes in, it swings back the other way."