Homeowners clash with board - VA

Article Courtesy of The Northern Virginia Journal Online
May 28, 2002
By ANDREA PRICER  -  Journal staff writer 

For at least five years, resentment, fear and fines have been escalating within the Dale City Ninth Homeowners Association, where a group of residents say they are locked in a bitter dispute with the association's board. 
    The feud is at once complex and simple, with some residents quoting a laundry list of offenses committed by the board, while board members say it comes down to paying what is owed. 
    The Dale City Ninth HOA was created for about 140 red brick town houses in 1973, a time when such associations were booming. 
    One in every three new homes built since 1970 has been part of an association and one in every six Americans now lives in an association-managed community, said Mary Showmon, spokeswoman for the Community Associations Institute. 
Rick Kintzel/Journal 
Henry Comer says he was hit by a
tow truck after trying to help
prevent a neighbor's vehicle
from being towed.
Some Dale City residents claim
towing is being used as
punishment for opposing the
homeowners association's board. 
Anyone who purchases a home or property in an association-managed community automatically becomes a member required to pay annual dues, she said. That money then is used to maintain common areas, safeguard property values and provide amenities such as green space, playgrounds and pools. 
'Obey the rules'
    In the late 1990s, the Ninth HOA board began using its power to impose fines to deal with drug houses and gangs in the neighborhood. Initially, the plan worked - the troublemakers moved out. 
But residents say the board didn't stop there. 

The situation has degenerated into a mass of petty squabbles, trumped-up fines and retaliation by those in power, unhappy homeowners said. 

Henry Comer, 38, and other residents said they decided to speak out after repeatedly failing to find any other solution. Mediation was attempted but the board refused to participate, Comer and others said. 
    Three current board members, two former board members and the management company did not return phone calls seeking comment.     Another board member, a resident for more than 20 years, spoke on the condition of anonymity. The board member said complaints have surfaced because rules once ignored by the association leadership now are being enforced. 
    "I don't know what their problem is. You think you've got one problem solved and bang, here's another one,'' the board member said. "Every time you turn around, it's like, `Oh my golly, what next?'' 
    The board member said a handful of residents stir up the others and a ``vast majority'' have no problems with the board. 
Fear of fines

    But residents do not agree. 
    One former board member, who also asked not to be named, said many homeowners are afraid to speak out against the board. 
    "There's a lot of residents that are upset but won't say anything to the board or the management for fear of being fined,'' the resident said. 
    Once a fine is imposed, a resident loses valid parking tags and can be towed at any time for parking in their assigned spots. 
    `"You don't get a warning on your car,'' the resident said. "You're talking almost a whole paycheck to get your car out.'' 
    It is the towing situation that worries Cynthia Richardson, who admits she is behind in her dues. Her 11-year-old son has been battling a brain tumor - which recently became malignant - since he was 2 years old. 
    She asked the management company to directly withdraw money from her bank account to pay the dues, but she said the board rejected the plan without comment and revoked her parking privileges. 
    Her husband's car has been towed at least twice, Richardson said. Another time, she said, her van - equipped with a wheelchair lift needed to take her son to chemotherapy treatment - was almost towed when her husband's car already was impounded. Neighbors spotted the tow truck driver and convinced him not to take the van, she said. 
    "It's not knowing on a daily basis ... if he's gonna get sick,'' Richardson said of her son. "And at any time, they could come and tow [the van].'' 
    Comer said he sympathizes with those who cannot afford to be towed and on April 24, that sentiment took him down the street where a neighbor's vehicle was about to be towed. 
    Comer said the car was hooked up as he stood alongside the curb and the tow truck driver hit the gas, swinging the side of the car into Comer. A second acceleration sent the car again into Comer, striking him in his back, he said. 
    He said an officer called to the scene told him no charges could be filed because the incident occurred on private property. 
    Officer Dennis Mangan, a Prince William County police spokesman, said wrecks on private property are not reportable to the state and no police report is taken. 
    He said the officer responded to the scene and determined the incident was an accident and that the parties had exchanged names and contact information. 
    Comer was taken to the hospital, where he said doctors found a bruise on his liver and a pinched nerve. Comer said he now has a cyst on his liver and soon will be checked to see if the cyst is bleeding. 
    ``I'm just sitting here helpless,'' he said. `I don't like not working.'' 
Elderly concerns
    Granville Moore hasn't been injured but worries he could be. 
    The 84-year-old resident and former HOA board treasurer has green outdoor carpeting on his front stoop and a handrail. He said the carpet was there when he bought the house in 1994, although some board members dispute that. 
    Moore added the handrail about a year after he moved in for himself and his 83-year-old wife, and said he had no complaints until 1996, when he said he angered a former board member who has since moved from the neighborhood. 
    Moore said the woman became upset when he, as treasurer, refused to sign some empty bank withdrawal forms, in effect issuing blank checks. The board now says Comer owes more than $1,000 to the association, much of it for fines related to the carpet and handrail. 
    The board member said Moore repeatedly has been told what type of carpet is acceptable but refuses to remove the one he currently has, which does not meet the association's architectural standards. The handrail is not really a problem, but Moore should have received board approval before he installed it, the board member said. 
    Because he refused to pay the sanctions and no longer has a parking tag, Moore said he is forced to walk several blocks from his home to the street where he now parks his car. 
    Moore said he needs the handrail to get in and out of his home. 
    ``It's difficult, especially in the wintertime,'' Moore said of getting up his front stoop. 
Voting rights
   Board members say if you don't like the board, vote them out. 
Comer and some of the others said they would be happy to do so, if they could. But fines on their homes, ranging from having shingles in the front yard during reroofing to a lack of curtains on windows, prevent them from voting. 
    "They want to stop you from voting,'' Comer said. "They want all the power because they know we will vote them out in a heartbeat.'' 
    According to the bylaws of the HOA, voting rights are suspended if any annual or special assessment is not paid. Special assessments are described as monies for capital improvements. The bylaws do not explicitly say that voting rights will be suspended if a fine is not paid. 
    The board member said if a fine is unpaid, the homeowner is not a member in good standing and cannot vote. 
    ``If you pay your dues, there's no problem,'' the board member said. 
Reaching compromise
    Comer and other neighbors said they worry about conflicts between desperate owners trying to save their cars and tow truck drivers. 
    "Somebody's going to get hurt,'' he said. 
    There are not many options for residents who can't reach a compromise with their homeowners association. Virginia does not have an agency with a governing role over such groups. 
    Residents and associations can turn to Cynthia Schrier, a liaison between the two groups who serves on the state Real Estate Board but is not a binding mediator. 
    Schrier said the Property Association Act and the Non-Stock Corporation Act govern such groups, but these laws are a maze of legalese. 
    Bob M. Diamond, a former president of the community institute, said residents should always try to work with the board to resolve problems first or go to groups such as the institute to educate the residents and the board on their rights. 
    The last resort is a lawsuit, which some Dale City Ninth residents have considered. 
    Sadie Shivers said she had a series of fines imposed - including one for having shingles in her front yard while her roof was being redone and one for having a doormat hung out to dry - but they were later dropped. She sent out a flier in March inviting residents to an informational meeting with an attorney. Within days the fines reappeared, she said. 
    The only current board member who agreed to speak with The Journal, on the condition of anonymity, said the fines were removed and did not know they had been reinstated in March. 
    Shivers said she has spent more than $6,000 on attorneys to fight the various fines and she wonders how much money, paid by homeowners, the board has spent on its legal fees. 
    ``All that money that they are spending they could be using to beautify this neighborhood,'' she said.