In gated communities, security takes new role

Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post

By Meghan Meyer

Published July 15, 2007


On his way to give a speech to the Toastmasters at Woodfield Country Club one recent evening, Seth Hochman noticed flashing lights in his rearview mirror.

These were not the blue-and-red flashing lights of a police squad car. They were the orange lights of a private security guard's car.

Confused, Hochman hesitated, then pulled over.

The security guard wrote him a $100 speeding ticket.

"I was truly shocked," Hochman said. "I didn't even know if I should pull over."

As gated communities take over the South Florida landscape, homeowners associations have taken on many of the duties traditionally performed by government: collecting assessments, issuing fines, keeping the streets clean and repairing hurricane damage. Woodfield has issued traffic citations for about five years, homeowners association President Rick Coffin said. Several other Palm Beach County communities also use security guards to enforce traffic rules on private streets.

"The same things that are happening outside a gated community are happening inside a gated community," Coffin said. "Security is one of the most important things in today's society. In an HOA, you can't afford not to enforce these rules."

One of the most youthful gated communities in South Florida, Woodfield has about 2,000 children, Coffin said. Speeding cars pose an imminent threat. Far more residents call to demand more enforcement of traffic rules than to complain about tickets, Coffin said. Protecting its residents, he said, is one of a community association's key government-like functions.

But critics complain homeowners associations aren't accountable to voters the way elected officials are. "We need as much regulation by government agencies as condos have," said Jan Bergemann, founder of the watchdog group Cyber Citizens for Justice. An agency with a $20 million budget could educate residents on their rights and keep associations in line, he said.

Bergemann receives 30 to 50 e-mails a day, plus several phone calls, seeking his expertise in dealing with homeowners associations. Most callers just want information about their rights, he said. Some call to complain about traffic tickets, and Bergemann tells them the association can't enforce them.

He's found Palm Beach County to have a more "relaxed, retired environment" compared with the rest of the state. Residents here don't want to rock the boat.

"''Leave us alone,' they say," Bergemann said. "''If we need to pay another $100, we'll pay another $100, just leave us alone.''"

When Hochman wrote the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation's Division of Land Sales, Condominiums and Mobile Homes to complain about the ticket, he received a reply back that said "there is no state agency that has the authority to investigate complaints against homeowners associations." The letter referred him to the division's dispute-resolution program. But because he's not a Woodfield resident, he can't use the program. A Woodfield board had already denied his appeal.

"I'm just really frustrated by the state," Hochman said. "I would think the law would be clearer. HOAs seem like such a protected class."

He blames the associations and the attorneys they hire to lobby state government.

Associations have countered Bergemann's push for more regulation. Two years ago, homeowners associations across the state formed the Coalition of Community Associations. The group works on insurance and other issues in Tallahassee and tries to make it easier for members to understand what's going on in the legislature, said coalition member Barbara Zee, vice president for legislative affairs with the Alliance of Delray Residential Associations, a civic group representing associations west of Delray Beach.

The coalition was first formed to counter Cyber Citizens but has become "more than a reactive organization," Zee said. "We represent a much wider group of associations. It certainly has been helpful for organizations out there who think they're alone in trying to be heard."

All Woodfield can do to enforce the citation is to ban Hochman from the neighborhood. It can't call a debt collector or take him to court or put a lien on his house. If a resident received a ticket, the community could only force him to use the guest lane instead of the bar code-reading residents' gate.

Hochman hasn't thought about what he'll do if he needs to get back into Woodfield and the guard won't let him in.

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," he said. "I don't plan on paying."