Abiding by rules of your neighbor

Disputes increase as more live under home associations


Good fences may make good neighbors, as the proverb goes. But they can play havoc in neighborhoods governed by community associations. Just ask Rick McCann.

The 37-year-old home-building executive and his wife, Julia, erected a wooden fence around their house in Potomac a few years back to keep their young children out of traffic.

But the home improvement ran afoul of their affluent Montgomery County community's rules requiring that fences be approved by a committee of neighbors. The association sued the McCanns, asking a judge to force its removal.

After $25,000 in legal fees, the couple still has their fence, though a portion had to be moved as part of an out-of-court settlement.

"It was just so ludicrous," Rick McCann says. The fence looked no different from many others in the neighborhood, he contends, but reason was in short supply. "They didn't want to lose," he recalls, "and I was maybe a little pigheaded, too."

An extreme case, perhaps, but such disputes are becoming more frequent as Americans increasingly move into houses or condominiums governed by associations of neighbors.

Favored by developers and local governments, community associations are also popular among home-buyers because they usually help keep up the neighborhood. But they can be nightmares for the unwary, who learn the hard way that their homes are not their castles. And politics in homeowner or condo groups can sometimes make the former Soviet Union seem democratic.

Associations represent a "de facto privatization of local government," says Evan McKenzie, a political scientist at University of Illinois, Chicago. The problem is, he says, these entities designed for economic purposes often conflict with the civil liberties and accountability Americans expect.

The number of people living in neighborhoods, condo buildings or cooperatives run by owners or members has mushroomed, from about 2 million nationwide in 1970 to more than 54 million now, according to the Community Associations Institute, a Washington-based think tank and lobby.

Half of all new housing built since 1980 has been in community associations, estimates Robert H. Nelson, a professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and author of a recent book on the phenomenon. The growth of what he calls "private neighborhoods" is transforming how people live and govern themselves, he suggests.

"Americans may want less government," says Nelson, "but that's at a higher level. At a lower level, they want more government. They're voting with their feet."

For most, it's a good life. Homeowner or condo associations often take care of swimming pools, tennis courts and playgrounds for their members' use. The groups also handle essential services such as trash pickup, snow removal, landscaping, and street and sidewalk maintenance. Many even arrange social activities for their residents.

But those perks aren't free. Residents of communities governed by associations have to pay assessments to cover the upkeep and services. Fees or dues range from hundreds to thousands of dollars a year.

And there's another price to be paid: Associations typically dictate what owners can do to modify the external appearance of their homes, regulating everything from fences, decks and hot tubs to the color of doors and mailboxes. Most ban all signs except for real estate placards, ban clotheslines and restrict what kind of vehicles can be parked outside, even in driveways. They also limit the number and types of pets that residents may keep.

Enforcement is left to volunteers, who are often elected at poorly attended meetings and may or may not have legal or governmental experience.

"What you really have is quasi-governmental agencies with no division of power," said State Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat who is pushing for reform of Maryland laws regulating community associations. "The same people that write the law enforce the law."

The point of such restrictive covenants is to maintain the neighborhood's appearance and keep property values up - a goal many people embrace. Many also appreciate having someone to serve as the buffer or enforcer in disputes with neighbors.

"People want more control over their neighbors," Nelson says, "and they're willing to give up some autonomy."

Well, not everyone. While a recent survey for the Community Associations Institute found 71 percent of those governed by neighborhood groups are happy with the arrangement, stories abound of home- or condo owners being hauled into court for putting up fences, sheds or flagpoles and other violations. Other times, it's the owners suing the association for failing to keep the grass cut or make repairs.

Some disputes between association leaders and their constituents spin out of control. One wound up before Maryland's second-highest court last year, in what one appellate judge called the legal equivalent of road rage.

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