Love thy neighbor - or not

Privately-owned communities popping up everywhere

along with complaints and suits from residents

Article Courtesy of NEWS-HERALD.COM -- Northeast Ohio

Posted November 21, 2004


Ted Iannetta spent 18 years in his Mentor condominium.
"I loved my place," he said. "It was

1,200 square feet - which is big for a townhouse. I had a finished basement, three bathrooms, and the closet space was really nice."

But Iannetta, a 67-year-old who is retired from the Mayfield City Schools transportation department, finally got fed up with having to answer to condominium board members.

He recently put his Chestnut Commons unit off of Route 306 up for sale and moved to a home in Seven Hills.

"I left because I don't like the way it's being run," he said. "They're playing nickel-and-dime games with the residents, but the major things they don't attend to. I was cited for having an inconspicuous hose in a flower bed. The same day, they had not salted the streets, and they were ice-covered.

"One poor guy was fined $600 for a parking violation because a neighbor squealed on him," Iannetta claimed. "They cite you for a frosted garage window. Why mess with that? Why mess with someone's flower bed when that's all they have in life? I'm not saying don't cite gaudiness. I'm saying, don't run the place like it's a concentration camp."

Iannetta said the last straw for him was when the board tried to assess all 125 owners $6,000 for vinyl siding starting in January.

So Iannetta said he encouraged his fellow unit owners to sign a petition against the idea and got 75 angry residents to attend a board meeting. The board agreed to drop the siding idea for the time being.

However, Chuck Glover, vice president of Lake Management Inc., the Mentor-on-the-Lake company that owns Chestnut Commons, said there's more to the story.

"He is correct in that the board was looking at doing a siding or painting job," he said. "But he only provided us with eight or 11 names - not an actual petition. They are still looking at doing siding on the property."

Glover also said Iannetta threatened him and employees of his office with bodily harm after Iannetta was written up for a minor infraction.

Iannetta was never charged with a crime, but does admit to the threats, claiming board members wrongly accused his dog of killing his grass.

Clashes like this are becoming all too common.

An estimated one in six Americans lives in an association-managed community, according to Alexandria, Va.-based Community Association Institute. Planned communities account for 50 to 55 percent of this total, condominiums 40 to 45 percent and cooperatives 5 percent to 7 percent.

Community associations have become popular because they help protect home values, provide affordable ownership opportunities and promote efficient land planning.

But as more people move to such places, the adage that good fences make good neighbors no longer seems relevant. In fact, your neighbors might not even let you put up a fence.

The rules

The primary purpose of a privately owned community is to manage common areas such as roads, parks and pools. Homeowners are obligated to pay dues, which can be anything from $100 to $10,000 a year, depending on the neighborhood and what amenities are offered.

Homeowners are also obligated to live by an association's rule book, also known as covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs). An elected, volunteer board of directors is responsible for enforcing those rules.

Regulations vary widely but typically cover such things as the color of your house, the kinds of trees you may plant, where you can park your car and whether you can rent out your home.

In some neighborhoods, homeowners have faced fines for flying the American flag, putting up Christmas lights and having the wrong color curtains in their windows.

But some rules are necessary to bring up the appearance of the property and improve housing values, Glover argued.

"You can't let people put pink flamingos on their lawn and have 50 different styles," Glover explained. "The place doesn't look nice. If you want to paint your house with green polka dots, go ahead and buy a house."

But buyers typically don't get a copy of an association's CC&Rs until they close on their home or move in - when it's usually too late to back out. In addition, CC&Rs are often written in legalese, so a buyer may not understand the consequences of not abiding by the rules, said George Staropoli, founder of San Francisco-based Citizens Against Private Government.

"You need to know that you are essentially giving up your property rights," Staropoli said.

But associations also have come under fire for not enforcing the rules enough.

Double-edged sword

Douglas Richards of Willoughby filed a lawsuit July 23 in Lake County Common Pleas Court against Woodbridge Condominiums Homeowners Association.

Richards, a unit owner at the Lost Nation Road complex, claims Woodbridge's three board members are too lenient with residents.

According to the lawsuit, Woodbridge has allowed several unit owners to add walks and stepping stones to common areas, as well as to store recycling containers on their porches and patios.

The Woodbridge board also allowed a unit owner to keep a dog weighing more than 25 pounds and another unit owner to keep two dogs - which are also against the board's restrictions, according to Richards.

Citing decreasing housing values, Richards - who did not return a phone call seeking comment - has asked Judge Vincent Culotta to force Woodbridge board members to start strictly enforcing their laws.

Richards' attorney, James Mramor, did not wish to comment on the lawsuit.

David Kaman of Cleveland, who represents Woodbridge and other associations throughout Ohio, said the majority of residents living under these private governments have little or no problems.

"The condominium lifestyle is a great lifestyle," Kaman said. "You don't have to go out and shovel snow."

But Eastlake attorney Mike Lucas, who represents several local condominium and homeowners associations, said lawsuits involving association-governed communities are on the rise.

"The main problem is the associations are only as good as the board of directors," Lucas said. "There are rules and regulations that a lot of people would think are not large legal issues. It's kind of a double-edged sword. I've seen people extremely critical that the board doesn't enforce the rules enough, and I've seen unit owners critical that they do enforce the rules."

And some people complain the rules seem to be enforced randomly.

"If the bylaws say you can't have swing sets in the common area," said the attorney, "someone will say, 'So-and-so put one up four years ago, and you never did anything about them.' "

The bottom line is, associations do have the power to enforce the rules, and even have the right to foreclose on an owner for not paying maintenance fees.

However, Lucas said such foreclosures are done only as a last resort when an owner refuses to cooperate or communicate with the board.

"No association wants to go into a foreclosure situation," he said.

"That is truly the last step in the process. It is costly, and they don't want to pay the money."

Such rules are not arbitrary, but are designed to protect owners' property values, Lucas added.

"If you don't want to live in a homeowners association," the attorney said, "you don't have to. Nobody is forcing you to buy the property."

As for the never-married Iannetta, he is trying to adjust to life outside of an association. As he visits his Mentor unit on a rainy afternoon to get it ready for sale, he admits he misses the condo lifestyle.

"It's hard to give something like this up," he said while glancing longingly at his updated ceramic tile kitchen floor. "It's centrally located. It had a swimming pool. I had a nice area here to walk the dog. It's nice that you can have a dog here.

"I have two dogs now and they have more room. I like my house. But I miss this."