Chafing under uniformity
Article Courtesy of the

By LORENZO PEREZ, Staff Writer
Published Saturday, June 1, 2002 
In terms of luxury and space, the 25-year-old trailer in Granville County can't compete with Michael D. Pierce and Judi Robinson-Pierce's $300,000 home in Cary's Preston Village.

But because the temporary move to the cramped trailer means a quicker escape from the clutches of their homeowners association, Pierce said, it was an easy decision. Until their purchase of another home is complete, he will soon be sharing the trailer with most of their nine dogs -- the source of their legal clash with the Preston Village homeowners association.

The Pierces did not read the portion of the homeowner association recorded covenants restricting the number of pets they can own before buying their house. They are not alone. Few read the covenants thoroughly, and few know before buying their house that they do not have freedom over such decisions as what color to paint their house or where they can hang their school flags.

It is growing harder to escape the control of homeowners associations. The number of planned-unit developments, condominiums and other neighborhoods governed by associations has exploded in the past 30 years.

In the 1970s, according to the Community Associations Institute, there were about 10,000 homeowners associations nationwide. Today, there are about 231,000, with about 47 million Americans choosing to live in them, the institute said.

Locally, associations' appearance standards and other restrictive covenants govern many of the Triangle's newer subdivisions.

"Buyers sometimes tell me, 'I don't want to be in a homeowners association,' " said Bobby Wieland, a Raleigh-based real estate agent. "I tell them, 'Well, you just limited yourself big-time.' "

Many gladly accept the restrictions as a way to protect their investment, but some chafe under the imposed uniformity, questioning the powers granted to most homeowners associations.

As the Pierces found out, though, homeowners associations have power and don't hesitate to use it. The couple ran afoul of the restrictive covenants that prohibit homeowners from owning more than three dogs. The homeowners association sued.

The lawsuit is scheduled for a June 14 court date, but the Pierces already have put their Preston Village home up for sale. When the stately brick home is sold, and their purchase of several acres in Granville County is complete, Robinson-Pierce said, she will rejoin 

Judi Robinson-Pierce and her husband, Michael, are selling their Cary Preston Village home because the homeowners association has sued them over their ownership of too many dogs. The association says the dogs are an annoyance.
Staff Photo By Corey Lowenstein
       Some Rules
Architectural control standards imposed today by various homeowners associations in the Triangle include:

No basketball goals, fixed or portable, placed where a neighborhood street is intended as the playing surface.

Identical mailboxes and mail posts, with restrictions on the size and placement of house numbers on mailboxes.

Uniform fencing, frequently wooden picket fences with minimum height requirements

No trucks, tractors or "inoperable automobiles"

Boats and "recreational vehicles" to be enclosed in garages 

her husband and the rescued dogs they have brought in.

"We've been ostracized," Robinson-Pierce said Thursday. "They've put us every month on the front page of the Preston Village newsletter. Do they put everyone else's violations on the front page? Technically, you can call it stalking."

Neighbors who support the three-dog limit tell a different story in affidavits filed in the suit by the homeowners association. In the affidavits, neighbors complained about Robinson-Pierce's dogs barking outside at 3 a.m. And despite the iron fence around the Pierces' yard, neighbors said they feared that some of the larger dogs could escape and threaten their children.

The vast majority of people in homeowners associations appreciate the benefits, said Henry W. Jones, a Raleigh lawyer who represents more than 200 associations, including Preston Village.

In neighborhoods where covenants regulate neighborhood noise, the external appearance of a home and other land-use restrictions, property values are maintained or tend to rise, Jones said.

"Some neighborhoods don't have restrictive covenants, and you can tell it," Jones said.

Exerting power

To enforce appearance standards, most homeowners associations are empowered to fine homeowners who violate covenants. If it is a question of an untidy lawn, for example, many reserve the right to send a landscaping crew to a homeowner's property and bill them for the maintenance work.

Homeowners associations can also put liens on homes where the owners fall behind on their association dues. Last year, Thomas and Preethi Thomas were threatened with a lien or possible foreclosure after the management company for their Lochmere neighborhood home in Cary claimed it had never received their association dues.

The threatening letters continued after the Thomases' bank verified that the check had gone through earlier in the year, Preethi Thomas said. The Thomases filed a complaint with the state Attorney General's Office, and the management company eventually cited a computer software error, acknowledging receipt of their dues.

In the past three years, the state attorney general has received 100 complaints against homeowners associations. Many of them stem from liens placed against a complainant's home by an association claiming the homeowner had skipped paying association dues. 

It was unnerving at the time, Preethi Thomas said, realizing that because of a question over $210 in association dues, the Lochmere Homeowners Association could have placed a lien on their home.

"That freaked us out," said Preethi Thomas, 30.

'Dry reading'

Homeowners rarely take the time to read 40 or more pages of covenants before closing on their house, Chapel Hill lawyer Michael Levine said.

"It's kind of dry reading, and everyone focuses on the house and the neighborhood and feeling good about owning 'a piece of the rock,' " Levine said.

Developers insert most of the covenants to make their neighborhoods as attractive and marketable as they can, Levine said. 

"They want to give people assurances that this is what they can expect when they move into the neighborhood," Levine said. "These mini-mansions are for people who have an appreciation for the uniform."

Bill J. Gabello, 39, said he and a small group of other Hampton Oaks residents have been trying to revive their homeowners association. But they were motivated primarily by a rash of break-ins and vandalism in their North Raleigh neighborhood, not imposing stricter appearance standards.

"No one has brought up uniform appearance," Gabello said. "These are blue-collar working homes, not $300,000 or $400,000 homes."

Enjoying uniformity

The houses in Morrisville's Breckenridge neighborhood fall more within that upper price range, with some of the larger homes selling for about $300,000.

Jeff T. Bond, 40, said the idea of a homeowners association enforcing strict appearance standards didn't bother him. A network engineer, Bond lives in a five-bedroom, two-car garage home in The Preserve section of Breckenridge with his wife and three children.

Standing barefoot on his front lawn, watching his sprinkler work, Bond said that the last thing he wanted to see was a neighbor paint his or her house pink.

"And I don't want to see people breaking down their engines in the front yard," Bond said.

A couple of cul-de-sacs over, T. Bryan Alexander said he expected that the small East Carolina University flag he had attached to his mailbox probably wouldn't pass muster with the restrictive covenants. But a little uniformity doesn't hurt, said Alexander, a Morrisville firefighter.

Alexander and his wife, Wendy Alexander, said that their new surroundings were a welcome change after living in a Zebulon neighborhood where chain-link fences, brightly colored houses and untidy lawns were common. They frequently volunteered to cut their neighbors' yards and trim their trees, he said.

They don't expect that to be an issue in The Preserve. Wendy Alexander, who works for an IT consulting firm, said there is only one thing she will miss, and that is the ability to hang a clothesline in her yard.

That is a no-no in The Preserve.

"I love the fresh smell of clothes on a line," Alexander said. 

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