Homeowners groups need to enforce rules consistently

Article Courtesy of Herald Tribune

By Kathy Silverberg

Published March 7, 2010 

Ask any parent or manager or organizational leader and they are likely to say one of the hardest parts of the job is maintaining a consistent message, saying what you mean and doing what you say.

It can seem so much easier to give in to pressure and do what is expedient instead of what is right and will lead to better things down the road. It would have been a lot easier to let my children have ice cream every day after school than to stand firm, explaining one more time why I was saying "no." But I knew that good eating habits would avoid problems as they grew older. I also knew that it was important -- not easy but important -- for children to have boundaries that they can come to expect and consistency that they can count on.

Those memories came to mind the other day when I read about the woman who has been battling her homeowners association for more than three years over violations to the neighborhood deed restrictions. It seems that she has more "yard ornaments" than are allowed in the Lakewood Ranch neighborhood where she lives. She was notified of her violation and the impending fine in 2006. Her attorney wrote the board, explaining that the items, including ceramic fish and two metal sculptures of poodles, had been there since 1999. She heard nothing more until last year, when she learned that the fine of $1,600 would escalate at the rate of $50 per day until she removed the offending items.

To strengthen her argument, she has photographed the yards of several neighbors who have decorative items that appear to be out of compliance. Some of the yards belong to residents who are or have been officers of the homeowners association. She is crying foul and has vowed to appeal her fine.

In the grand scheme of things, in a world where too many children go to bed hungry, too many people fight life-threatening diseases, too many lack clean water to drink, all this seems trivial at best. Yet no one is forced to live in a deed-restricted community. Those who do have an obligation to live by the rules set forth in the covenants or to work within the organization to have them changed. Many people find these communities attractive because they prevent unsightly displays that reflect badly on the rest of the neighborhood and could conceivably affect property values.

But to make it work, homeowners associations have an obligation to enforce the restrictions consistently. It doesn't make sense to let one resident keep his recreational vehicle parked in his driveway while penalizing another for making the same choice. Not only is it unfair, it calls into question the reason for having the rules in the first place.

Anyone who has lived in Florida for any time at all has heard the horror stories of the covenant police, people who believe it is their mission in life to find any and all violations of a community's rules. They monitor paint colors and landscape planting choices. They count ceramic pots on front porches, they monitor the number of hours cars are parked on the street and they check on who is leaving their trash cans out too long. It would seem they could find more constructive pastimes. But yet, as long as they are consistent, reporting any and all violations regardless of whether the offenders are friend or foe, they are within their rights. Some people would say their neighborhoods will be the better for their efforts.

Some will not. Some will say they don't see a need for covenants at all, at least not ones that restrict a person's sense of taste and beauty. Some people think plastic flamingos are just fine; some don't. Some think purple is a perfect color to paint the exterior of a home; others don't.

Most people want to live in a place that is visually attractive, where people properly maintain their homes and take pride in their neighborhood. Deed restrictions may be one way to accomplish his goal, but they are not the only way. It takes responsible residents who do what is right and who set a good example for their neighbors to follow.

Oscar Wilde wrote, "Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live; it is asking others to live as one wishes to live." We'd all do well to ask less and live more.


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