Members upset by homeowners' groups

Article Courtesy of Asbury Park Press
Published May 22, 2007

TRENTON Angry members of homeowners' associations, representative of the way an increasing number of people are living, complained at a conference Monday that the elected boards governing their communities can behave like draconian governments.

The national lobby for the homeowners' associations called the complaints anecdotal and pointed to surveys showing, among other points, that residents want less regulation by state governments.

Residents speaking out at the conference, organized by the three law schools in New Jersey, say they're now being choked by regulation with one detailing a ban on cooking with woks, because of the identifiable aroma that results.

"We are all aggrieved homeowners," said Ellen Vastola of Somerset , who described how her board ordered her to remove a front door even though others in her shared community had identical doors.

Any number of complaints filled the State Museum auditorium, from no-pet rules to bans on hand-billing to the hiring of association board members' relatives as lawyers or landscapers for the associations.

Community life, said attendees, has evolved from the exclusive, gated communities of the 1960s, sometimes built around a golf course or other leisure pursuit, to one where condominiums or other shared space has become the choice of one in eight New Jerseyans and one in five Americans.

"The numbers alone make it of immense public importance," said Public Advocate Ronald Chen, who may in the end be legislated to oversee the associations.

Frank Rathbun, spokesman for the Community Associations Institute, the lobbying group for the associations, said from his office outside Washington that 60 million Americans reside under the auspices of an estimated 300,000 associations nationwide.

At the forum, Seton Hall University Law Professor Paula Franzese said, "Transparency must be the norm." She quipped that the salutation has gone from "How are you doing, neighbor?" to "What are you doing, neighbor?"

Jackie Garfunkel, 72, of a senior community in Howell, said that in 2004 she had published a note in her development's newsletter that complained about conditions at the swimming pool.

She said she then received a letter from the association's attorney, who said she could not print criticism or that she would face removal as the newsletter's editor. Garfunkel said she resigned in protest and won election to the board.