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Can your homeowners' association mess with your yard and send you the bill?

Lawn and Order

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The right side of Joyce Morgan's front yard is thick with heirloom tomatoes, herbs, and yucca plants. On the left side, Morgan has been cultivating a small butterfly garden with coneflower, milkweed, lantana, marjoram, and Mexican petunias.

Recently, the Wexford Sound Homeowners' Association changed its bylaws to require that all homeowners keep their yards "well-kept and attractive," and Morgan and her sister, Anita Ellzey, think the vagueness and subjectivity of that standard make it open to abuse.

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"I'm not so worried about what they're going to do to me," Morgan says. "It's just that there's right and there's wrong, and any neighborhood should be encouraging families to actually live in and enjoy their homes."

Eileen Lentz, who was elected president of the Wexford Sound HOA board about a year ago, says the bylaws were left vague for a reason. "Well, I don't think they would want us to be too detailed about it, because she's one of the problems," Lentz says. "You were at her house, right? How'd you like that yard?"

Morgan and Ellzey moved from Maryland six years ago to the neighborhood, a loop with three main streets off of Secessionville Road. Ellzey had just taken an early retirement, and Morgan's daughter was starting college at Coastal Carolina University. "I said, 'This is what we're looking for. We're not looking for Kiawah,'" Morgan recalls. She was especially fond of the tidal creek that ebbed and flowed right in her backyard, with spartina grass waving in the wind as if to welcome her home. The sisters bought houses right down the street from each other and joined the HOA, as required by the neighborhood.

But after the HOA passed a series of amendments to its bylaws on April 30, they don't feel so welcome anymore. They worry that the new rules could be used by the nine-member board to bully neighbors who step out of line. In fact, the new rules give the HOA board the authority to correct any violations they see on an offending homeowner's property at will.

According to a copy of the amendments provided by Morgan, the HOA board "will attempt, but is not required, to informally communicate with non-compliant owners concerning violations," and if the homeowner in question doesn't fix the problem, the HOA "shall have the right to enter any such lot for the purpose of correcting such violation, with the cost of correction to be at the expense of the offending lot owner."

Lentz says the amendments were passed partly to combat the ill effects of a separate set of amendments from about four years ago — back when Morgan and Ellzey were members of the board as secretary and treasurer, respectively. Those amendments, which the sisters refer to as a Homeowners' Bill of Rights, set special requirements for residents who wanted to make a complaint to the HOA. If, for instance, a resident felt that his neighbor needed to prune some unruly bushes in his front yard, he would have to first walk over and make a complaint to that neighbor in person. The HOA would only take up the case if the neighbors couldn't patch things over themselves, and then it would send a series of letters to the offender and give him or her 44 days to clean up the bushes. Only after that 44-day grace period could the board start charging fines.

When the Bill of Rights passed, the HOA did not have the help of a neighborhood manager. Now, the HOA pays Marshland Communities, a management company, to help take care of the neighborhood's day-to-day affairs. This includes mailing complaints and issuing $25-a-week fines for such infractions as visible trash cans, unkempt yards, and cars parked in the street. The new amendments give the manager some enforcement powers to deal with people who, for instance, habitually park their boats in the driveway, Lentz says.

Jack Pickett, a supporter of the new amendments who lives across the street from Morgan, says the old rules "had no teeth."

"It's just a safeguard to keep our neighborhood up to par," Pickett says of the new bylaws. "I've lived in neighborhoods before where they just let people do what they wanted to do, and the property value dropped dramatically." Pickett's front lawn is immaculately trimmed.

Morgan, for her part, says the old system worked just fine. When a complaint arose about a property, she would personally go knock on the homeowner's door and let him or her know. "It always got resolved. No one was fined. No one was threatened," she says. "Most people are nice when you explain to them, 'I'm sorry, but we've had a complaint.' Just ask, 'Would you please do X, Y, and Z?' "

Joyce Morgan has cultivated a butterfly and produce garden in her front yard, and some of her neighbors aren't too happy about that. - KATIE GANDY
  • Katie Gandy
  • Joyce Morgan has cultivated a butterfly and produce garden in her front yard, and some of her neighbors aren't too happy about that.

Ryan McCabe, a Columbia attorney whose firm represents about 360 community associations in North and South Carolina, says he's seen many cases where the architectural and maintenance rules are just as vague as Wexford Sound's "well-kept and attractive" standard — and with the same sort of enforcement power. What's unusual, he says, is that the HOA chose to put those rules in the bylaws, which generally only apply to the procedures and leadership roles of the HOA board.

In order to introduce new rules like Wexford Sound did on April 30, he says, most HOAs would have to amend their Declaration of Covenants, a more powerful document that is usually harder to change. In Wexford Sound, an amendment to the Declaration of Covenants would require the approval of 90 percent of the homeowners; an amendment to the bylaws only required a majority of the votes from whoever showed up to the meeting.

There are 156 households in Wexford Sound, but Morgan estimates that about 16 showed up to vote at the special meeting where the amendment passed.

A Happy Neighborhood

The houses in Wexford Sound are mostly two-story and vinyl-sided, in keeping with the standard suburban building practices when the first ones were built in the early '90s. The developers were careful to leave trees and big front yards, so while the design is slightly cookie-cutter, it's cozier than the wall-to-wall Stepfords that cropped up in the exurbs after the turn of the millennium. And while a few of the houses could probably use a power-washing, to an outside observer, the neighborhood seems more or less idyllic, with kids riding bikes and families lounging on screen porches.

But if you live in Wexford Sound and the HOA board doesn't like your garden gnome or pink flamingo, things could get ugly.

In a best-case scenario, an HOA is a group of amicable homeowners who want what's best for the neighborhood. The members plan Fourth of July block parties and take turns maintaining the community flowerbed, and if a homeowner lets his yard go to seed, they gently remind him to pull some weeds every once in a while. According to statistics from the Community Associations Institute, 62 million people in 314,200 communities across America now live in HOA-governed communities, and a February 2012 Zogby poll found that 70 percent of people living in HOA neighborhoods rated their overall experience as positive (22 percent said it was neutral; 8 percent said it was negative).

On the other hand, an HOA can be a dystopian hotbed of neighbor-vs.-neighbor backbiting and Orwellian control-freak politics. In 2006, an HOA in Pagosa Springs, Colo., threatened to fine a homeowner $25 per day for hanging up a "divisive" Christmas wreath on her home in the shape of a peace sign. Some residents told the local ABC News affiliate they thought it was a subversive protest against the Iraq War; others thought it was a Satanic symbol.

One man in Odessa, Fla., spent nearly $200,000 in legal fees fighting his HOA when it sued him for parking his pickup truck in his own driveway. In Edgewater, Fla., an HOA tried to ban children from riding Big Wheels in their parents' driveways because it was too dangerous. An HOA in Frisco, Texas, foreclosed on and sold a National Guard member's house because he was $800 behind on his HOA dues — while he was on tour in Iraq.

Wexford Sound hasn't seen anything like that yet. HOA meetings have rarely been contentious, and they are usually poorly attended — at the annual meeting in the fall, Morgan says only nine households were represented. "The people that just want to live their lives, raise their families, and go to work aren't really interested in what's going on at the meetings," Morgan says. There were at least two other dissenters at the special meeting April 30, Morgan says, but one of them didn't want her name in the newspaper for fear of reprisals.

Lentz thinks the sisters are blowing the situation out of proportion. The HOA board members are not going to hire a landscaping company to beautify someone's overgrown garden and then send the homeowner the bill, she says.

But that's exactly what the new bylaws say they can do.

Lentz says the new amendments are a plus for busy homeowners who don't have time to take complaints from their neighbors. Instead, a professional neighborhood manager can give a call and send a letter, streamlining the whole process. "We want this to be a happy neighborhood," Lentz says, "not a neighborhood with a bunch of people that are going to complain all the time."

Homeowners from Hell

Joyce Morgan's frontyard garden stands out among the well-groomed lawns of Wexford Sound. - KATIE GANDY
  • Katie Gandy
  • Joyce Morgan's frontyard garden stands out among the well-groomed lawns of Wexford Sound.

Morgan's front-yard garden might not be popular with all of the neighbors, but at least she isn't part of the Doe household. It's like the Does are consciously trying to wreck everyone's property value. Their house in Wexford Sound came with a pristine view of the man-made lake, and they have ruined that view with an enormous storage shed that got approved by the City of Charleston but wasn't given the thumbs-up by the neighborhood's Association Recommendation Committee.

The HOA board invented the Does, fictional neighbors from hell, to illustrate the need for the latest round of amendments to the association's governing documents. In a letter to homeowners, the writer goes on to explain what could hypothetically happen if the board lacked the power to stop the rogue family: The Does can't afford their mortgage payments "after building such an elaborate shed," so they decide to rent their home out to some ne'er-do-well tenants, who neglect to maintain the lawn and then park their cars on it. They get tired of pine cones falling on their cars, so they cut down the tree that has been producing them, which upsets the Does enough to finally evict the scofflaw renters.

Things only go downhill when a new set of tenants moves in. "The new renters work for a construction company and often have heavy machinery parked in the driveway," the writer says. "Debris and building waste from their work is constantly piled up in the curb. The shed is a perfect place for their part-time motorcycle repair business. They also indicate that they are big fans of certain cultures by the displayed flags draped over the railings."

It's a nightmare scenario, especially at a time when the withered housing market has already taken a big bite out of property values on James Island. People who are trying to sell their houses in the neighborhood today are asking tens of thousands of dollars less than what they paid five to 10 years ago, and prices keep dropping.

Morgan says the situation with the Does could have been dealt with under the old system, the Bill of Rights system. But that rulebook has been discarded, and now the Does — if they really existed — could expect a call from the management company about their numerous offenses.

At the meeting to ratify the new bylaws, Morgan says she and a few other residents who had questions about the policies got heckled. "They say, 'Just mow your yard and trim your bushes,' " Morgan says. "Well, I do, but that's not the point. The point is this is the United States." If she could do it over again, she would have picked a different neighborhood for herself and her sister when they came down from Maryland six years ago. The HOA was not so contentious back then, she says, but now she knows that institutions can change just as quickly as the people who lead them.

"The complaints have gone on since the development was created," Morgan says. "There's always somebody who's got a complaint about somebody else. Unfortunately, it's human nature, and it's definitely HOA nature: Love thy neighbor as thyself, unless you live in an HOA."

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