Paint colors prompt lawsuit

Article Courtesy of Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Mia Taylor - Staff
Published Thursday, June 26, 2003

There isn't much that would make you look twice at Ruth Caruana's Camden Pointe home. 

The yard is neat. The house is well-kept. Its beige exterior, with hunter green shutters and brown trim, is not unlike that of many other homes in her Acworth subdivision. Yet Caruana, unlike her neighbors, is being sued by the Camden Pointe Homeowners Association, which manages her nearly 400-home community. 

She's being sued over the colors brown and white. 

Seven years ago, when Caruana bought her home, it was beige, with hunter green shutters and brown trim. The garage doors were white. In 2001, she decided to repaint and opted to stay with the same color scheme, using paint chips to match the colors as closely as possible. 

Now the dining room table in her four-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath stucco home is covered from one end to the other in legal documents. Caruana and her husband, Charles Reavis, have been battling the homeowners association since the repainting was completed. 

They are being sued by the homeowners association, because, according to association attorney David Kwon, the colors used on the house --- brown and white --- "are not consistent with the rest of the neighborhood." 

The brown exterior trim, according to legal documents filed in the case, is not a color approved by the subdivision's Architectural Control Committee. In addition, the garage doors are not the "original" color white, nor are they a "color that has been approved by the ACC," according to a certified letter Kwon sent to Caruana on July 17, 2002. 

What's more, it said, Caruana repainted her home's exterior without obtaining or seeking prior approval. Under the subdivision's declaration of covenants, conditions and restrictions, the exterior appearance of a home cannot be "materially changed" without permission. 

The couple and their lawyer say this is a case of residents being harassed by an overly controlling homeowners association. More than a dozen neighbors have filed affadavits in the couple's defense. Other residents are packing up and moving out, they're so fed up. 

Disputes over subdivision covenants are not uncommon. They've sprung up all over metro Atlanta in recent years as more and more subdivisions have been built. In Suwanee, the Falcon Creek Homeowners Association took a resident to court over additions he made to his property, including an eagle-adorned fountain, gargoyles, tropical plants and spotlights. 

A Lawrenceville couple found themselves in a dispute with their homeowners association after installing a doorway that would make it easier to transport their elderly mother into the house. The couple had gotten verbal, not written, approval for the doorway and were later surprised to receive a letter telling them if they did not undo the work, the association would. 

Meanwhile, Caruana's alleged missteps may end up costing her much more than the $3,000 she paid to have her house painted. The association has rung up more than $6,000 in attorney's fees in its attempts to have Caruana repaint her home in the approved shades of brown and white. Under the subdivision covenant, if Caruana loses the court battle, she is responsible for repaying the association for all its legal costs. 

"It's a ridiculous case as far as I can see," says Marietta attorney Jesse Barrow, who is representing Caruana. "That house is an ornament to the neighborhood." 

An earlier dispute 

Camden Pointe is a sprawling middle-class subdivision filled with homes on quarter-acre and half-acre lots. House prices range from about $210,000 to $300,000. 

About six months after moving into the subdivision, Caruana, who is listed on the deed as the homeowner, began clashing with the homeowners association. 

A dispute that arose between Caruana and the association over property maintenance and her assessment had to be resolved in court. That disagreement resulted in a decision for both parties --- Caruana was ultimately required to pay the disputed assessment, but not the legal fees the homeowners association incurred in bringing her to court. 

When it came to painting her home, Caruana says, she made several phone calls and left several voice messages in an attempt to get the names of the colors originally used on her house. She says her calls went unreturned. 

The couple hired a painter who had worked on dozens of houses in the subdivision and used paint chips from the original colors to have new paint made. Months after the painting was complete, the violation notices began arriving in the couple's mailbox. 

"We've talked to neighbors up and down our street who have painted their houses without requesting prior permission," said Reavis. "Our garage doors were white before, and they're still white." 

"We did it as close as we possibly could," said Caruana. 

Barrow, the couple's lawyer, says the current lawsuit is retaliation because Caruana has a history of being outspoken. He has collected 15 affidavits from neighbors who say the color of the house has not been "materially altered." 

Caruana says neighbors have come knocking on her door, offering to sign affidavits on her behalf. 

"This is an outrageous lawsuit," said Barrow. "This is what it comes down to: They're trying to intimidate the homeowner into settling . . . . It's a homeowners association that is out of control --- it is not serving the homeowners in the subdivision and is being led astray by legal counsel." 

At this point, all Kwon will say is that "the association would like to see colors that are consistent with the rest of the neighborhood." He would not say what colors would be "consistent," nor would he specify how the colors Caruana used are inconsistent. 

"This has been frustrating for us," Kwon said, "even before a lawsuit was filed, because a lawsuit is absolutely the last resort for the association --- that's when all communication breaks down." 

Kwon said there is more to the case that can't be fairly portrayed in a news article or even in legal filings. 

Homeowners association president David Alexander declined to comment on the case for this article. 

Others fault board 

Caruana is not the only one who feels the association is a bit heavy-handed. Stephen and Michelle Murphy have long felt that their next-door neighbors were being harassed by the association. 

On Oct. 18, 2002, the Murphys got their own dose of the association's brand of covenant enforcement when they received a certified "final notice of architectural violation" regarding their house. 

The violation? A "shutter in the upper right-hand corner [of the home] that is pulled away from the brick and needs to be reattached." 

Michelle Murphy explained that a single half-inch nail from the bottom edge of the shutter had popped out of place a year earlier. At that time, the Murphys received a notice about the nail from the association, and her husband hammered it back into place. 

A year passed, during which the nail popped out again. This time, the association sent a certified letter stating that if the Murphys did not replace the missing nail within 10 days, the matter would be referred to the association's attorney "with the instructions to take whatever action is necessary to have this violation corrected." 

"Homeowners are to the point of frustration," Michelle Murphy said. "There's just a handful of people on that board, and they have to realize they can't control our lives." 

But more important, Murphy says, she and several other homeowners have painted their property without seeking prior approval and without any repercussions. 

"For a few years now, I've felt like they're harassing Ruth," Murphy said. "The color of her home has never offended me. There's a house in here that's a bright mustard color that really stood out, but that homeowner was never given a problem." 

Camden Pointe resident Jin Wang, a professor at Kennesaw State University, is so fed up with the homeowners association that he's moving out of the subdivision. And he says he's not the only one who is doing so. Wang says the Camden Pointe Homeowners Association is developing a bad reputation far beyond the subdivision's borders. 

"The letters sent out . . . to the homeowners at Camden Pointe were very hostile and created an unpleasant atmosphere at the subdivision," he said. "In my view, many issues could and should be dealt with and resolved within our community instead of using a legal approach to solve the problem." 

Wang said homeowners associations can have a positive impact, maintaining property values and enriching homeowners' lives. But the Camden Pointe association hasn't developed proper checks and balances, he said. 

Caruana, whose husband has become disabled since the lawsuit began, cutting their income in half, says she wants to stay right where she is. Although she hardly has the funds to do so, she plans to keep fighting. "I'm not going to let these people railroad me," she said. "I'm going to stand up for myself."