Homeowners forced to abide by list of rules
Associations make sure residents in group play by the bylaws or pay the price in court

By Marisa Schultz 
Article Courtesy of the Detroit News
Published Tuesday, June 13, 2003

STERLING HEIGHTS -- As the number of homeowners and condominium associations have spiked with waves of new development in Macomb County, disputes over their rules are playing out in court. 

Associations in Metro Detroit from West Bloomfield to Shelby Township have sued residents over issues ranging from dog feces to playground equipment, according to court records. 

Joyce Hetzel, director of Vineyards Community Association in Sterling Heights, said sometimes legal force is the only way to fix a problem. 

In the Vineyards Community, where satellite dishes, outdoor laundry drying, political signs and vegetable gardens are all prohibited, Hetzel said the association has taken at least 10 people to court for breaking the rules. 

"The problem is if associations don't enforce the rules, they run the risk of others becoming unenforceable," Hetzel said. 

More than 55 million Americans have homeowner associations , according to the California-based American Homeowners Resource Center. 

They have become common in the past 15 years, said Elizabeth McMahon, director of the center. Communities favor them because maintenance and blight issues are handled through association funds, and not by cities, she said. 

Such associations require property owners to abide by neighborhood bylaws that critics say are too restrictive. 

Regulations over pets, fences, windows, pools, hot tubs, Christmas decorations, vehicles parked in the driveways, signs, paint color and landscaping are some of the restrictions that residents find objectionable. 

Enforcing the rules is big business. Lawyer Mark F. Makower, of Farmington Hills, who represents at least 300 associations, at any given time has up to 10 lawsuits pending against Michiganians who have broken association rules. 

He also has 100 lawsuits pending against Metro Detroiters who haven't paid their association dues. 

It's usually the small stuff that riles people up the most. 

Makower won a case in March against a West Bloomfield couple who kept icicle lights on their home seven months past Christmas. 

The state Court of Appeals ruled the lights violated the by-laws at the couple's Pointe of the Woods Condominium Association. Then there's Bill Lincoln, who was unaware of homeowners association rules until he was served a lawsuit. 

His brother is a resident in a Richmond condominium association, but the mortgage was taken out in Lincoln's name. The association sued because his brother didn't pick up after his dog. 

How homeowners end up in court

* In Shelby Township, a couple was sued for a wrought-iron fence in the back of their home and a private property sign. 

* In Mount Clemens, a resident was sued for putting a lock on a back yard gate and blocking the gate with playground equipment. The association said access to the back yard is necessary for maintenance workers. 

* In Richmond, a condominium association sued one of its residents for failing to pick up his dog's feces from the lawn. 

How homeowners associations work 

* What they are: Homeowners associations govern subdivisions. They typically are run by elected boards. 

* How they're created: Most associations are created by the builders and developers of the subdivisions. Homeowners eventually get control, most times. 

* What they do: Protect and preserve the value of subdivision properties. 

Source: Detroit News research 
To avoid legal problems in his name, Lincoln and his family cleaned up the mess and told the brother to give up the dog. 

Lincoln, 28, of Mount Clemens said his brother's neighbors' complaints were valid. 

"I know if I were living in the complex, I would be upset," he said. "There was a lot there." 

Lawsuits and strict enforcement of associations' regulations are not likely to ease, said Richard Smutek, an attorney who represents a Mount Clemens homeowners association and is president of his association in Rochester Hills. 

Associations are important to developers who want to ensure their complexes are sales showcases for future business, Smutek said. 

"You are going to see more enforcement of the restrictions and more head-butting between associations and members," Smutek said. "I don't think individuals realize they have limited use of their property, and that the association has the right to dictate use." 

Homeowner associations in Oakland County have been aggressive in pursuing good neighbor policies. They're increasingly against allowing bigfoot homes -- the practice of knocking down smaller structures and replacing them with much larger houses. 

The reason: "You can diminish the value of my home by building an exceedingly large brick wall right next to me," said Paul Reagan, past chairman of the Birmingham president's council of homeowner associations. 

First-time homeowner association members are often annoyed by restriction on a home they own, said Pat DiVitto, a spokesman for the Mark F. Makower and Associates law firm. 

The firm represents about 300 homeowners associations in Michigan, DiVitto said, and the business continues to grow as new neighborhoods are built in growing communities. 

In Shelby Township, the wrought-iron fence that Charles and Angie Love constructed around their walk-out basement door was supposed to be an eye-appealing way to keep their three dogs in the back yard. 

But their homeowners association wanted the fence removed and sued to make it happen. 

Five years and more than $100,000 in legal bills later, the Loves lost their battle when the state Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the association. The court affirmed a previous judge's order to take down the fence. 

"If we could have only seen this coming, we would have never moved into this neighborhood," said Angie Love, 57. 

Other people in the neighborhood have put up fences and private property signs, they said, but none has been taken to court. 

"It's discrimination," Angie Love said. 

One of the selling points for the couple on the 4,200-square-foot home was that it was homeowners association-free -- or so they thought. They specifically didn't want to have restrictions on fences and the like because of their dogs, they said. 

They filed a lawsuit in 1997 against the previous homeowner, former Detroit Red Wing Dino Ciccarelli, for not disclosing information about the association and maintenance issues. They are appealing a judge's decision that ruled in favor of Ciccarelli. 

"We went through a lot," Angie Love said. "It's just a matter of justice being done. ... We are not going to give up."