- Residents put up a political sign in their yard
- The HOA says that's not permitted
- Suddenly, $400,000 in lawsuits
The feud that consumed Fairfax County’s Olde Belhaven would span four years and cost the community as much as $400,000, and it was ignited by one of the smallest of sparks: an Obama for President sign.
The modest placard Sam and Maria Farran planted in their yard during the 2008 election put them on a collision course with the neighborhood homeowners association. It was four inches taller than the association’s covenants allowed.
Four years. Four hundred thousand dollars. Four inches. I feel like this is the tagline for Nicolas Cage's next film.
In any case, a resident committed a minor infraction of the rules regarding signage. I'm sure the neighbors reacted calmly and rationally to this, yes?
“Need I say more! This would lead to chaos,” a neighbor fretted in an e-mail about the precedent that would be set if the sign wasn’t removed. “Our property values would be put at risk.”
Don't worry--the quotes from the community get way crazier. This is just the warmup.
Sam and Maria Farran, a wine broker and a government lawyer, moved to the 44-unit townhouse community in the Alexandria section of Fairfax in 1999. In many ways, it is a typical Northern Virginia neighborhood, with tidy houses and a mix of government employees, service members and professionals.
The townhouses line the three-quarter-acre square, which is the neighborhood’s central feature and the site of most community-wide events. Without the green plot, it might be difficult to call Belhaven a community.
Sounds like quite a community. Could we get a recent anecdote showing how the HOA is normally quite reasonable and not known for going off on residents for minor violations of neighborhood protocol?
The Farrans said the HOA had a reputation for hard-line stances.
Not off to a good start...
In one case, board member Don Hughes compared some residents’ refusal to install window-pane dividers to the “cat and mouse game Saddam Hussein played with the USA,” e-mails show.
Well, that's a totally unfair comparison. Hussein did have window dividers--take a look:
Anyway, that's a strong opening from Mr. Hughes--did he perhaps finish the email with a vague, extremely disproportionate threat?
Ultimately, Hussein “paid the price,” he said, concluding that the residents should comply.
Get them installed, yall. Otherwise, they send in the troops to topple your lawn gnome statues.
Nevertheless, the Farrans were surprised when letters arrived in October 2008 telling them and others that their political placards were too large.
“This is our final request,” Hughes wrote on behalf of the board.
E-mails show that Hughes pushed the board to act. He wrote that he was prepared to make a motion to put a lien on the Farrans’ house if they didn’t comply. He called sending a letter a “teaching moment.” Hughes declined to comment.
Threatening to take someone's house is a great teaching moment! Maybe next you could threaten to kidnap their children if they don't keep their lawn mowed, or fine people $900 for using the wrong color of Christmas lights.
The Farrans were angry. They acknowledged that the sign broke the rules but said it seemed like an assault on free speech to go after a minor violation during the height of an election. Their response: cutting the placard in half. They planted “OBA” and “MA” signs in their front yard.
As satisfying as it may seem, fucking with overzealous HOA's is probably a bad idea. I'm guessing the board members were not amused.
The prank did not amuse board members.
And they decided to act.
They passed a resolution allowing the board to fine residents up to $900 per infraction for violating HOA guidelines. Across the country, fining authority has been controversial, with HOAs hitting residents with levies for such transgressions as displays of colored Christmas lights and patches of dead grass.
My Christmas display featured both, but I thought it was really quite tasteful.
Board members believed that they had the right under Virginia law, but the Farrans saw an illegal power grab that had no basis in the HOA’s covenants. When the board, acting at a meeting that was not publicly announced, rejected the Farrans’ roof and deck projects for aesthetic and architectural reasons, the Farrans said it was retribution.
“It’s like we weren’t living in America,” Maria Farran said. “You are always one board election away from a tyranny. They wield enormous power.”
Maria, you have it backwards--remember, you're Saddam Hussein, imposing your tyrannical four-inches-too-tall OBA MA sign. They're preserving everyone's freedom by prohibiting you from doing work on your own home in a secret meeting.
The Farrans filed a lawsuit against the HOA saying it didn’t have the authority to impose fines and had vindictively rejected their home improvements.
Board members were taken aback. They saw residents who wouldn’t abide by the rules that had made Olde Belhaven a great neighborhood and who were willing to resort to drastic action to get what they wanted.
Archie Umphlett, one of the neighborhood’s oldest residents, put it this way: “When it comes to the Farrans, it’s their way or the highway.”
Umphlett is a fantastic name, so good work on that front, Archie. I'm sure that you guys will want to act rationally at this juncture so that the HOA appears to be the voice of reason, right?
The Farrans said HOA backers told them to move. They found bullets in their yard. Someone implored a priest at their church to prevail on the Farrans to stop the lawsuit. A local real estate agent said the infighting was scaring off some home buyers.
So, to recap the story: HOA attempts to get residents to remove a sign, citing property values as a reason. In its campaign to get the sign removed, it manages to create a massive dispute scaring off any potential buyers. People call on religious leaders to take sides, and leave bullets in yards as a threat. I'm starting to see how the Saddam Hussein reference makes sense now.
The story goes on to talk about how the legal fees bankrupted the HOA and how all the neighborhood people have to pay more in HOA fees now and they had to sell the town square and so on, which is all very tragic, I'm sure. You gotta feel at least a little bad for the other residents who got screwed over when their HOA felt like dicking over some people because of a sign. Still, it's always entertaining when someone tries to abuse a position of power and it totally backfires. I wonder if I have an animated gif that would illustrate this point? Spoiler: I do!