Courtesy of The Observer
January 10, 2010
RANCH — Within days, Summerfield resident Joani Ellis should know whether the
$1,600 fine levied against her for having too many decorations in her front yard
will be enforced.
“I find it hard to understand they drive by my yard and are offended,” Ellis
said. “I understand the rules are to maintain property values and the visual
integrity of our community. My yard is always maintained in a pristine and
tailored manner. I believe the rules need to change.”
Pictures from a decade ago show Ellis’ yard in virtually the
same condition as today. The same decorative fish and seashell
combination rests beneath a tree in her front yard as well as
adjacent to the garage. Two metal poodles sculptures stand amid
a flower bed and three pots filled with flowering plants, dot
another section of the flowerbed where vegetation will not grow.
For this setup, Ellis has been fined. Deed restrictions in
Summerfield/Riverwalk’s Homeowners Association manual state
decorative items in the front yard must be
Ellis says deed restrictions are being enforced selectively in her
to three in quantity. Ellis has been cited for having 22 items in her yard.
Property management personnel are counting each individual shell as one
decorative item, even though a metal frame connects them.
$1,600 fine is one that she’s had since late 2006, when she first received
notice of the violation. At the time, Ellis requested to be heard by the HOA
board but was denied. Town Hall stopped fining her after receiving a notice from
her attorney in late 2006, but the charges never were dropped.
“I have not paid it because of the statute of limitations and also because of
selective enforcement,” Ellis said.
Since the first letter Ellis received about her decorations, she has scoured the
neighborhood, looking for similar violations to see if she’s been singled out
or if the rule has been enforced consistently. A few of her neighbors have even
adorned their yards with extra decorative items to see if they’d receive
notices, which they never did.
Ellis pulls up a picture of a beautifully landscaped home — one whose owners
obviously spent more than a few hundred dollars on landscaping.
“It’s beautiful,” Ellis said. “It’s whimsical.”
And yet it violates the three-item rule.
Even the yards of current HOA board and committee members and community
development district supervisors contained the same violation, as evidenced by
Ellis’ pictures and confirmed by The East County Observer, which
stopped by several homes to verify the offenses.
“I have thousands of pictures of hundreds of home that have the same or more
infractions than I on the same subject,” Ellis said.
And the fact that Ellis was elected to serve on a neighborhood committee in 2007
— with the same infractions hanging over her head — also seems to show the
rules are being enforced selectively. This year, when Ellis again ran for a
neighborhood committee seat, she received enough votes to hold the position but
was informed later she could not serve because she was not a “member in good
standing” because of her yard, she said.
Ellis isn’t alone in her concerns about enforcement.
Neighbor Pam Brown said she received a notice in February 2009 about a trellis
in her front yard that needed to be removed or approved by the modifications
“A few years before that, we’d gotten a notice that we needed to have it
bolted to the house,” Brown said. “We did it.”
Brown said the confusion about the trellis wasn’t limited to this incident and
that HOA records on her yard are incorrect.
“We’re tired of arguing with these restrictions,” Brown said. “I
honestly don’t know what’s going on, but they don’t seem to have any
organization as far as when they send letters.”
One woman who lives in The Country Club and has a relative in Greenbrook agreed
to speak with The East County Observer on the condition of anonymity
for fear of retaliation for speaking out on the subject.
In three different years, she was cited for breaking a rule requiring homeowners
to park at least one of their cars in the garage. But the rule already had
changed. The homeowner manual states a homeowner must keep at “least one space
in the garage available at all times for parking a vehicle.”
“They don’t know their own rules,” the woman said. “There’s no
checking on it.”
She also noted some rules — such as one that restricts overnight parking on
the streets — are not always realistic. In a rental situation, for example,
two adults are allowed per each room and one is allowed in the den. In a
three-bedroom home with a den that could translate to up to seven vehicles for a
two-car garage with two parking spaces. Or, if a homeowner has several relatives
in town for a few weeks, they likely would have to violate the rule.
Additionally, homeowners can report others anonymously. The policy is meant to
help the community, but the woman and Brown said it pits neighbors against one
Because complaints are received anonymously, homeowners in violation cannot
learn who reported them. The woman from Country Club feels if a violation is
reported numerous times — or by the same person against the same homeowner —
the legitimacy of the complaint should be questioned and the complainant should
“The one getting the violation should also get rights,” she said. “I feel
the system is being abused.”
Town Hall’s property management staff, she said, have a responsibility not
only to make sure the complaint does reveal a violation of deed restrictions,
but also to visit that neighborhood and look for other violations so that no one
home is being targeted.
Community Associations Manager Cynthia Wills did not return repeated phone calls
left by the Observer seeking comment for this article or for information about
how the property management department handles deed restriction enforcement.
Wills also escorted a staff member of The East County Observer from
Ellis’ compliance meeting Feb. 8, citing the meeting was open only to
Summerfield/Riverwalk homeowners. Other attendees of the meeting, including one
woman who lives in Palmer Ranch in Sarasota, were not asked to leave.
Ellis is determined something should change and hopes the SRVA board sees a
“Our neighborhood has matured and it is time to rewrite the rules to help
maintain our property values and the integrity of the neighborhood, not just
list a number of items that can be displayed,” she said.
Ellis said regardless of the outcome of her compliance hearing, she plans to
lobby the rule revision committee to reevaluate rules in the neighborhood.
She also said she is hopeful the SRVA compliance committee will cast a favorable
decision her way, but she is ready to take the issue to court — if necessary
— if the board denies her request.
Under the “Decorative Items:” heading, the Summerfield/Riverwalk
Homeowner’s Association manual states:
“(Decorative items) Must be placed in the planting beds adjacent to the home.
This is a Homeowner Option. They may not be more than ten (10) feet from the
front of the house and are limited to a quantity of three (3). The maximum
height is thirty (30) inches and shall be in earth tone colors, i.e., shades of
brown, gray or white. English Garden Globes may not be placed in locations
visible from the street.”
of other lesser-known deed restrictions in Summerfield/Riverwalk:
“Regardless of the number and type of vehicles in the household, at least one
must be parked in the garage overnight.”
• “Parking on the street overnight is strictly prohibited.”
• “Shepard’s Hook’s over thirty (30) inches tall are prohibited.”
• “All decorative items over thirty (30) inches tall require Modifications