Good sense makes good neighbors

Article Courtesy of The Buffalo News

Published December 6, 2005


As someone who has written that government property is no place for religious symbols, I might surprise you with this next sentence. When it comes to your front lawn, it's your God and your grass.

I say this because near where I live, a controversy recently arose over a Christmas Nativity display. The Samona family of Novi, Mich., had put a collection of large plastic figures on their front lawn, including Jesus, Mary, Joseph, even Santa Claus.

Then a letter arrived from the management group of the subdivision demanding the Samonas remove the Nativity part of their display. They were told it violated a rule.

"I don't know who complained, but somebody must have," Joe Samona, the family's 16-year-old son, told me in a radio interview last week. "They said they'll fine us, and we said go ahead, fine us all you want. . . . They have no right. They are not the government. This is not about separation of church and state, either, because they are not a state."

For 16 years old, he's pretty astute. And he wasn't alone. When the story made international news, howls of protest came pouring in. And very quickly, the neighborhood "authorities" changed their tune. They apologized and said the Nativity scene was fine. Jesus is safe, at least on that block.

But the story brings to light a larger issue about what rights neighbors have to dictate how you keep your property.

I am going to anger every homeowners association president here, but I have to say I never liked those things. To me, they often end up being run by people with too much time on their hands and too big a sense of their own power.

I am not against the idea of a neighborhood chipping in for, say, snow plowing or neighborhood watches or even a block party. It's when these groups turn into the Property Value Police that I get worried.

Because let's face it. When a neighbor complains about another neighbor's paint color or awnings or front-lawn display, it usually has to do with one thing: the value of his own home. Everyone is so crazed that his or her "property value" might go down. "You're affecting my property value!" We have come to view making a fortune off our real estate as some inalienable right.

But tell me something. How many potential buyers decide not to buy your house because the guy next door flies a big American flag on Veterans Day? Or puts Mary and Joseph on the front lawn at Christmas?

It's a neighborhood, remember, not a sanatorium.

Besides, what these worried homeowners associations often overlook is this: The neighbors paid for their house, too. They worked hard. They wrote the checks. And part of what they get for owning the house - not leasing, not renting, but owning - is the right to determine how it looks and how they want to live in it.

I'm not talking about running a crack house in a cul-de-sac. I'm not talking about leaving broken windows or burned-out porches. But not liking a paint color or a building material or a religious symbol is your problem. Not theirs.

The Novi case is not isolated. You hear stories about such disputes all the time now - particularly during the holiday season. We need to lighten up. And we could all learn something from the 16-year-old Samona, who told me about a woman he saw near where he lived, who took out a prayer rug and began to pray.

"She was expressing her faith to herself," he said. "She did not interfere with anybody. She did not make trouble with anybody. She was peaceful, so I went on my way."

Out of the mouths of babes.