Courtesy of The Washington Post
Published Sunday, September 4, 2005
From the volunteer-made wooden pavilion in the center of
Hidden Lake, it's easy to see all the work residents do to maintain this
little Stafford County community: One man spreads and grades the gravel on the
roads; another resident uses her paddle boat to inspect the dam; others spread
herbicide on the lily pads so they don't take over the lake.
Volunteering "makes your life rich," Nancy Gravely, treasurer of the
association that runs the 40-year-old community, said as she looked
contentedly at the lake and the water birds. The warm and fuzzy moment passed
as Gravely talked about all her duties, which include negotiating paving
"I've been a secretary most of my life, and this is
a bit ridiculous," she said. "We're trying to handle things it seems
to me that someone with a lot more knowledge should be handling."
When communities such as Hidden Lake were built, a homeowners association
seemed like a great idea: Residents would chip in for the upkeep of what then
was a summer community. Today, however, Hidden Lake is a full-fledged
Washington suburb, with residents too busy to volunteer and facing problems
beyond their expertise. The community's governing documents have expired --
jeopardizing its authority -- and the neighborhood is at war over what could
be a $500,000 bill to repair the community dam.
Hidden Lake's problems mirror those cropping up at first-generation,
association-run communities across the country as they deal with aging
infrastructure and outdated or poorly written covenants that make it
impossible to enforce rules, increase dues to cover rising costs or resolve
Today, with 80 percent of homes being built in such communities -- a
percentage an industry group estimates to be even higher in the Washington
area -- an entire body of law and expertise has sprung up to deal with such
problems. Governing documents have grown from three pages to the size of
telephone books, states have passed laws giving homeowners associations power
to collect dues and place liens on homes, and real estate agents in many
places are required to inform buyers about what they're getting into.
Experts say scenarios such as the one at Hidden Lake are a warning of what
might lie ahead in a world that is redefining the role of government and the
responsibilities -- and costs -- of homeownership. Essentially unregulated,
volunteer-run associations are taking on jobs once thought of as requiring
municipal expertise: assessing infrastructure, putting out bids for road
projects, monitoring stormwater ponds.
Some local officials are questioning whether residents are qualified for such
tasks. Others wonder whether the fees and assessments levied against
homeowners in these communities amount to residents being taxed twice -- once
by the association and again by the local government. And some are asking
whether the association system lives up to advocates' contention that it makes
communities closer -- or if it drives them apart.
Robin Stone, president of the Lake Arrowhead Civic Association in Stafford, is
disillusioned. He said he believes associations establish a strict framework
and rules that busy commuters can hide behind instead of connecting in a more
"In the '70s, a homeowners association was getting together at the
[Joneses]," he said. "If your neighbor needed help, you sent your
kids over. I think people today aren't paying for community -- they are paying
Stone said that when he and his wife decided to move recently, "the first
thing I checked was whether there was a homeowners association within 100
Like Hidden Lake, Lake Arrowhead was also opened in the 1970s as a summer
community. Under its founding document, it is allowed to collect only $20 a
year in dues from each homeowner. Today, with nearly 500 lots of full-time
residents, the community needs as much as $300,000 to repair dams to prevent
lakes from flooding roads and homes. But disagreement among residents about
how community money was spent and the fact that Lake Arrowhead's covenant has
expired has started a "civil war" in the community, Stone said.
At this point, only half the residents pay dues, and the
association can't afford the cost of filing liens against homes of those who
don't comply. The lakes' beaches were shut down this summer because there was
no money to operate them.
The group, along with Hidden Lake's, wants the county to establish a
"service district" that would increase real estate taxes in the
neighborhood to pay for necessary repairs.
Some experts and supporters of homeowners associations
say many of the problems faced by older communities won't be repeated because
people have learned from the mistakes. The association structure typically is
created by the developer -- usually as a requirement by the local government,
happy to be free of responsibility for infrastructure costs. And developers
now have staff, publications and conferences devoted to helping associations
"I think in communities that have done the appropriate planning, [the
association system] works pretty well," said Frank Rathbun, a spokesman
for the Community Associations Institute, an industry group for
association-related businesses. The group estimates that 55 million Americans
live in association-run communities, up from 2 million in 1970. Rathbun said
the key to an association's success is having a reserve fund and periodically
hiring experts to evaluate big-ticket items and the group's savings plan.
"If you didn't save, you're stuck borrowing and paying interest or
levying a special assessment, and that comes as quite a shock to people. A lot
of people don't read all the paperwork," he said.
In addition, many older association-run communities have failed to file the
proper paperwork with the state and therefore lack the authority to enforce
Stafford County Supervisor Robert Gibbons (R-Rock Hill), whose district
includes Lake Arrowhead and Hidden Lake, said the system is "a
"Everything is dumped on the homeowner," he said.
More and more of these communities are turning to their governments for help.
Stafford County requires a petition showing that a majority of a community's
residents support the creation of a special taxing district before supervisors
will vote to do so. Such a petition is circulating in Lake Arrowhead, and
Gibbons will meet Thursday with Hidden Lake residents to explain how they can
do the same.
Gravely said many of Hidden Lake's newer residents come to the quiet spot near
the Fauquier County line from cities or communities where they were used to
having services taken care of for them. "They see this as a refuge -- not
what it takes to maintain that refuge," she said.