Homeowner's Association Uses Chopper

To Find Violations

Article Courtesy of CLICK2HOUSTON.com
Published November 7, 2006

Note: The following story is a verbatim transcript of a Troubleshooters story that aired on Monday, Nov. 6, 2006, on KPRC Local 2 at 10 p.m.

KPRC investigates another aggressive homeowners association in the Houston area.

A family is out thousands of dollars as they fight to save their home in court. Their HOA used some surprising methods to gather evidence against them, so tonight our investigative team turns the tables on that HOA, using the same tactics against them.


Local 2 investigative reporter Stephen Dean has the story from Montgomery County.


How far can a homeowner's association go in Texas? One expert says she's never seen tactics like this. When I met this family two years ago, they said they moved out here to Magnolia because the billboards said they could enjoy their horses. Now they could lose it all and they blame a vendetta and an HOA willing to spy on them from above.


From the air, just think of the stuff that's visible where you live. Imagine getting hit with a lawsuit from your homeowner's association for something that can only be seen from overhead.

Video: Homeowner's Association Searches For Violations By Air


That's right. The helicopter was working for his HOA. Spiva moved his family outside Magnolia because there's plenty of land for his kids to ride and for him to build sheds for his tools. Now, his HOA is suing him over an outside shed and the horses, using the helicopter to gather its evidence.


"I've tried to play by the rules, tried to do exactly what they wanted me to do, and they keep coming back on this stuff," Spiva said.


He said it's payback for his winning a battle years ago, embarrassing board members in front of all his neighbors. His HOA, the Clear Creek Forest Property Owners Association, sent him this violation notice with pictures of his back yard from above. He said the chopper was flying just above the treetops, blowing shingles up on his roof and terrifying his wife and daughter.


"They was flying real low. They was flying real low over the house and she could see a guy hanging out, taking pictures. Debbie got real scared and tried to run into the house," Spiva said.


The pictures show horses on the wrong side of a fence in an area they're not allowed. Now, the HOA is suing him, saying neighbors' property values are being affected by those horses, as well as the metal roof on his shed, and a gate on his driveway. The HOA says it got complaints.


"I think that's abuse. I think that's harassment," he said.


But the family wonders how it could get so many complaints when the only way to see it is if you rent a chopper to view it from above.


"It tells you that they had to go to great lengths to find the violation," said Shelby Moore, a law professor at South Texas College of Law.


Moore teaches classes on this subject. She was an expert witness on another famous HOA abuse case -- when Winona Blevins, 83, was tossed of the home she owned outright because she owed the HOA a few hundred dollars in maintenance fees.


Blevins got her home back in 2001.


"I've heard some pretty bad horror stories, but I've never, ever heard of an HOA taking money that homeowners are contributing, because that's the money you're spending, and flying over someone's home to find a violation," Moore said.


So, Local 2 Investigates put Newschopper2 in the air to investigate the HOA behind these high-flying tactics, but we stayed at a safe altitude.


The HOA president's house has all sorts of issues that could yield violation notices for anyone else -- boarded-up windows, a tractor parked so long that weeds are growing around it, a pickup that doesn't look it's going anywhere, and a metal-roof shed hidden behind a bigger shed. The same sort of thing the Spivas are now being sued for.


"That's pretty reprehensible," Moore said.


Johnnie Bryant, Jr., the HOA president, avoided answering our questions on camera. On the phone, he said his HOA doesn't routinely use a helicopter, but he insists the process is fair, and he claims even he's gotten violation notices about his property, too.


The Spiva family has now counter-sued his HOA, saying the driveway gates and metal roof were approved by the previous HOA board years ago.


"The barn was built to their specs. I mean, I had to give them every material that was being used in this barn," Spiva said.


No court date is set for the HOA's lawsuit or the family's counter-suit. Until the laws really are changed to protect homeowners, experts say the best way to fight aggressive HOAs is to organize your neighbors and vote the HOA board members out of power.