“Need I say more! This would lead to chaos,” a neighbor fretted in an e-mail about the precedent that would be set if the sign wasn’t removed. “Our property values would be put at risk.”
Such HOA disputes are as suburban as cul-de-sacs and two-car garages, but few metastasize into legal battles that spend years in the courts, break legal ground and bankrupt the HOA.
Most damaging of all, though, was a move probably unprecedented in area neighborhood feuds: The common area that is the literal and metaphoric heart of Olde Belhaven was put up for sale last year to settle its debts. It appeared that “the square,” as some called the neighborhood, would no longer have a square.
“It destroyed our community,” Maria Farran said.
The battle lines in Olde Belhaven were starkly drawn. On one side, the Farrans said they were standing up to an HOA run amok. On the other, HOA supporters saw a couple that inflicted financial ruin on the association — and their neighbors — to make a point.
Experts say such feuds are becoming more common with the tremendous growth of HOAs, which typically require residents to sign covenants governing architecture, landscaping and other matters when they move into an association neighborhood. The HOAs collect dues and often have the power to fine residents who don’t comply with the covenants.
There were 10,000 association-governed communities in the United States in 1970, and by 2012 the number had reached 324,000, according to the Community Association Institute. One in five Americans lives in a neighborhood governed by an association.
“Their growth means there are a lot of people in HOAs who haven’t necessarily bought into the lifestyle,” said Evan McKenzie, a University of Illinois professor who has written two books on HOAs. “Some like the higher level of rulemaking, but others don’t like the fines and control. You have conflict when these groups come together.”
One community, two camps
Sam and Maria Farran, a wine broker and a government lawyer, moved to the 44-unit townhouse community in the Alexandria section of Fairfax in 1999. In many ways, it is a typical Northern Virginia neighborhood, with tidy houses and a mix of government employees, service members and professionals.
The townhouses line the three-quarter-acre square, which is the neighborhood’s central feature and the site of most community-wide events. Without the green plot, it might be difficult to call Belhaven a community.
The Farrans said the HOA had a reputation for hard-line stances. In one case, board member Don Hughes compared some residents’ refusal to install window-pane dividers to the “cat and mouse game Saddam Hussein played with the USA,” e-mails show. Ultimately, Hussein “paid the price,” he said, concluding that the residents should comply.