Upscale community's mailbox fight becomes 'World War III'


Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

By Marlene Sokol

April 24, 2009

LUTZ Dan Gallagher's mailbox would be the envy of most anyone in suburbia.

Graceful scrollwork runs between the jet-black box and its slender post. The numbers are gold. Its top is shaped like a tiled roof.

People pay good money for such a box $342, says an ad in the Cheval newsletter.

But it has been called an eyesore on Avenue du Soleil, where other boxes are squat, thick and stucco. Its arrival has been met with angry voices, a state ethics commission complaint and a lawyer's letter to a homeowner that some consider a threat.

"It was not our intention to start World War III," homeowner Sandra Murray told the community association on Monday.

That would be an exaggeration. But, as neighborhood dust-ups go, not by much.

Conformity is a guiding principle in deed-restricted communities such as Cheval, a guarded enclave on the outskirts of a championship golf course.

Developers, in writing the rules for future homeowners, called for mailboxes that would complement the houses and the neighborhood.

State law in recent years ordered associations to spell rules out clearly, or risk untold levels of deviation.

"There are seminars and seminars on the impact of this thing,'' said T. Truett Gardner, the association's lawyer.

Cheval residents have long bristled about the original stucco mailboxes. Careless drivers knock them down and they are costly to replace. Pets and small children can hide behind them.

Already, two Cheval neighborhoods allow metal boxes. Would it make sense to let the rest have that option?

That was the question before Murray's architectural review committee, which reviewed Gallagher's request after his wife knocked down the stucco one with her car. Seeking a broad ruling, they put the question before the Cheval West Community Association.

In December, that board voted 4-1 to allow metal mailboxes.

An outcry ensued. More meetings were held. In February, the policy was reversed.

But it was too late for Avenue du Soleil. Gallagher's mailbox was standing tall.

"I have never, ever disliked you at all," homeowner Thomas Bland, 56, told Gallagher on Monday. "What I didn't like is what you did, and how you handled the situation."

That's because Gallagher, 78, is not just any homeowner, but an association board member.

Frustrated that Gallagher got a rogue mailbox approved when other homeowners could not even get ant beds treated, Bland filed a complaint with the Commission on Ethics in Tallahassee.

Gallagher should not have voted on the mailbox, said Bland, who also alleges Gallagher used his position for personal gain.

The association responded with an attorney's letter from Gardner that denied Gallagher had acted unethically, and proposed a settlement: Bland was to apologize and pay to replace Gallagher's mailbox. It also warned that Bland could be hit with legal fees if the state found in Gallagher's favor.

This, too, incited neighbors.

"If Americans can no longer criticize elected officials, we've taken a gigantic step toward a place where I don't want to go," said Earl Burley.

Board member Lori Lencioni said Monday that she didn't like the tone of the letter.

Still, she told Bland, "filing that [ethics complaint] should have been a last resort instead of the first thing you did."

There was debate about who should apologize to whom, and an argument about a petition drive. There was worried talk that someone could erect a porpoise-shaped mailbox, or a plastic one from Wal-Mart.

"We're all reasonable people here," Burley said.

"Have we just tried to sit down and talk to Dan and say, 'Let's work this out?' We have over 40 people on our street who don't like this thing. We've become enemies over a damn mailbox.''

More than a mailbox

After the meeting, Bland acknowledged that the mailbox was just one of his issues with the association.

"For 10 years, we have paid our money and we don't get services," he said. He described trash on the ground, landscaping that covers lights and poses traffic hazards, and meetings held at inconvenient times and locations.

As a show of good faith, he said he would tell the state to withdraw his complaint.

Gallagher, for his part, mused that "sometimes the littlest things in life create the greatest problems, and for no good reason."

By Thursday, the matter was nearing a resolution. According to Gardner, Gallagher has agreed to return to stucco and the homeowner association will foot the bill.

But one outstanding issue is the ethics complaint. Gardner expects it will be dismissed, either because of Bland's request to withdraw it, or because the state commission does not have jurisdiction over homeowner associations.

Because such a complaint is confidential at this stage, commission spokeswoman Kerrie Stillman could not even confirm its existence. Hypothetically, she said, the board would review it, as well as Bland's request to withdraw, and then send him an answer.

It will arrive in his mailbox.