|Article Courtesy of The Northern Virginia
May 28, 2002
By ANDREA PRICER - Journal
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.
|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.
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.
'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
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
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
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
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.''
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
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
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.
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
``If you pay your dues,
there's no problem,'' the board member said.
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
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
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
``All that money that
they are spending they could be using to beautify this neighborhood,''