Tuesday, February 12, 2013

I think I would rather live in a haunted house than one governed by a Homeowners' Association

Justin Jouvenal of the Washington Post reports that there has been a recent feud in Fairfax County between some residents and their local HOA.  For those of you without the time to read an entire article, here's a brief summary:
  1. Residents put up a political sign in their yard
  2. The HOA says that's not permitted
  3. Suddenly, $400,000 in lawsuits
Let's take a look at what happened:

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!


  1. Omg this killed me! What a hoot this crazy board is!

  2. Feel sorry for the other members? Why? It is their apathy to allow the board to run amuck that caused their own injuries. Maybe next time they will step up and put a stop to this nonsense by run away boards dominated by attorneys.


    1. I totally agree. It was the other members apathy by not speaking up that caused this. They got what they deserved. The other members wanted to kiss up to the HOA because they were afraid of what the board would do to them. NEXT TIME SPEAK UP!!!!

  3. Apathy? Who is apathtic about their own home?

    On the other hand wild horses could not drag me into the same room with the morons who run my HOA. Myself, and virtually all of my neighbors want nothing to do with the manipulative pychos who reign in HOA land.

    And this phenomonom has been tagged by the "industry"..like something out of a George Orwell novel..."homeowner apathy"

  4. No kidding! It is downright dangerous to oppose these people. They can ruin you financialy and even take your home!

  5. As long as board candidates do not have to be exposed to a background check, as long as there are no financial incentives to be a board member, and as long as it is nearly impossible for unit owners to fire/remove failed directors, we will continue to get such bullying and financial abuse. What about changing statutes to require (1) declarations that no statutes, regulations or CC&Rs can conflict with or degrade US Constitutional guarantees, (2) require extended background checks on board candidates to expose previous criminal convictions, less than honorable military discharges, and recorded business failures, (3) directors are exempt from annual assessments as long as they remain in good standing, and (4) removal/recall elections are conducted by a member committee (not board controlled) requiring 50+1 agreement by unit owners--by verifiable US-mailed RRR ballots. Is that too much to ask or impracticable to get passed by your Legislature?

  6. My pal Tom Skiba, at the national HQ of the Community Association Institute, (CAI), wrote:

    "What we cannot support are situations that compromise the financial health and well-being of associations, place an undue regulatory burden and cost on associations, or treat associations differently than any other type of business entity. Because that is what associations are - businesses. "

    But Tom, we in CAI not only WANT associations treated "differently" than any other type of business entity -- we've INSISTED on different treatment for associations, so long as the difference was preferential to the association.

    What other "business" can unilaterally decide that you're in breach of a contractual relationship, haul you before a kangaroo court with no due process, impose a "fine" and sell your home by auction on the courthouse steps to collect the "fine" -- all without ever involving a court of competent jurisdiction? Only HOA's get to do this!

    Except we may not get to do it in Virginia anymore unless the homeowners are stupi, er, educateded enough to vote for it.

    We get to do it because lawyers like me, and my pals F. Lee Foreclosure, Velvet Jones, Esq., and other CAI lawyers and lobbyists have worked for years to convince the legislatures that the sky would fall and the Republic would collapse unless associations had these powers.

    Keep up the good work, Tom, but let's not only candidly admit what CAI stands for -- let's be proud of what we've done.

    As always, have a profitable day!

    Phil Filechurner, Esq.
    Filechurner & Foreclosure LLP

    We make money the CAI way: Through the equity in your home!

  7. The Olde Belhaven Board's attempt to vote itself the authority to impose "fines" was the major theme in this litigation.

    Although Olde Belhaven sounds like an enchanting HOA, we've found that our unit owners are more discriminating vis-a-vis penalties. Punishment administered by mail, we believe, has certain....limitations.

    Here at Lashing Lakes, we're more creative. For example, we've addressed the problem of poor attendance at Board meetings by making the meetings mandatory for all unit owners. During our meetings, over which I, as the PCAM and General Manager, preside, unit owners may not speak unless invited to do so by me.
    This has the effect of speeding up the business meetings, avoiding questions from the floor, and allowing us to proceed to the "Salute to Leather Night" which immediately follows all of our meetings. During these proceedings, punishments are administered to all deserving unit owners in full view of their peers.

    Highly effective and always tasteful, I must say. We follow all of the CAI protocols.

    And perfectly legal by the way. Every single legal theory that permits or requires individuals to contract away their right not to be "fined" and nonjudicially foreclosed upon applies with equal strength when considering governing documents which provide for non financial punishments. In fact, an excellent argument can be made that our punishments are less severe than those which, um, strip owners of their equity and leave them homeless over an offense worth only a dozen tastefully administered strokes, wouldn't you agree?

    Our way of life at Lashing Lakes is rich and fulfilling. And if you don't mind being "bound" by the covenants, perhaps it's the place for you!

    Mark E. D. Sade, PCAM