Association takes dim view on light

Article Courtesy of Houston Chronicle
April 2, 2002

The gas light on the corner. 

Here we have yet another conflict between a homeowner and a neighborhood association that demonstrates how an anthill of a rule dispute can grow into a mountain of legal hassle and expense. 

Bruce Kyckelhahn is a CPA who said he had experience as a homeowners association board member before moving a couple of years ago into a house that he and his wife had built in the Briar Court subdivision within the Briargrove Park community. And so he is not opposed to associations. 

However, he does oppose the position taken by his present neighborhood association, Briargrove Park Property Owners, regarding the position of his gas light. 

The association says the light was installed in the wrong spot and wants it moved a few feet. Kyckelhahn says he believes that he has "more than complied with the spirit and the letter of the Covenants, as interpreted by our very own Architectural Control Committee." 

That quote comes from a Kyckelhahn letter to attorney Rick Butler, who represents Briargrove Park Property Owners. Several letters have been sent or received as the situation has festered and grown like a carbuncle. 

'Irreparable damage'
The association can request damages of $200 for each day Kyckelhahn's light has been located where it is instead of where the association wants it to be. Then there are attorneys' fees. When we spoke recently at his house, Kyckelhahn estimated the current total in dispute may be as much as $140,000. 

Butler, however, told me on the phone that no specific amount has been named in the pending lawsuit, and that any amount awarded by the judge likely would be considerably less. 

"Money is not even really the objective," Butler said. "It's a location issue." 

Personally, I like Kyckelhahn's light location. If I had been picking a spot for such a light on that corner lot, I suspect I'd have put it in the same place -- close to the street and right in the corner. 

A document titled "Plaintiff's Original Petition and Application for Permanent Injunction" notes that the light "is not located at the center of the Property and set back to be in alignment with the front street lights on the lots located to the east of the Property." It further states that, "No amount of money can compensate the present and future owners of the lots within Briar Court Subdivision, for the harmful effect and irreparable damage caused by Defendant's conduct and actions." 

Wow. I must be missing something. The placement of the gas light just doesn't seem like that big of a deal to me. I didn't see anywhere in the document where it claims the light's current location constitutes a safety hazard, or that its effectiveness in illuminating the area is diminished. And I don't understand how a light being out of line with neighbors' lights can cause "irreparable damage." 

Butler said the case is set for court near the end of this month, but the parties are supposed to get together and attempt to settle matters by mediation before then. 

For some time I've been struggling for a better understanding of neighborhood association controversies such as this one -- disputes that can lead to big fines and legal fees and even foreclosures. 

Right versus privilege
One fellow recently contributed some food for thought when he offered his view that buying a home in a neighborhood run by an association is much like buying a condominium in a building. You encounter numerous requirements that are considerably more restrictive than the traditional concept of individual ownership of real estate in This Great Land. 

A woman who runs a management company for associations surprised me when, in the course of a lengthy phone discussion, she said: "homeownership is a privilege." 

When she said that, I realized that I've been thinking of homeownership as a right. If she is right and it is only a privilege, I can understand how it might be revoked by an HOA if you didn't follow all the HOA rules. 

But if homeownership is a right, that is a different matter. A right is stronger than a privilege. I don't like to think anyone could be in danger of losing a right simply because the HOA doesn't like his gas light location.