Stafford County

Homeowners Groups Fight to Stay Afloat

Nancy Gravely, treasurer of the Hidden Lake homeowners association, and John Schindel, a Hidden Lake resident, visit a dam in need of repair.
Nancy Gravely, treasurer of the Hidden Lake homeowners association, and John Schindel, a Hidden Lake resident, visit a dam in need of repair. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 4, 2005

From the volunteer-made wooden pavilion in the center of Hidden Lake, it's easy to see all the work residents do to maintain this little Stafford County community: One man spreads and grades the gravel on the roads; another resident uses her paddle boat to inspect the dam; others spread herbicide on the lily pads so they don't take over the lake.

Volunteering "makes your life rich," Nancy Gravely, treasurer of the association that runs the 40-year-old community, said as she looked contentedly at the lake and the water birds. The warm and fuzzy moment passed as Gravely talked about all her duties, which include negotiating paving contracts.

"I've been a secretary most of my life, and this is a bit ridiculous," she said. "We're trying to handle things it seems to me that someone with a lot more knowledge should be handling."

When communities such as Hidden Lake were built, a homeowners association seemed like a great idea: Residents would chip in for the upkeep of what then was a summer community. Today, however, Hidden Lake is a full-fledged Washington suburb, with residents too busy to volunteer and facing problems beyond their expertise. The community's governing documents have expired -- jeopardizing its authority -- and the neighborhood is at war over what could be a $500,000 bill to repair the community dam.

Hidden Lake's problems mirror those cropping up at first-generation, association-run communities across the country as they deal with aging infrastructure and outdated or poorly written covenants that make it impossible to enforce rules, increase dues to cover rising costs or resolve disputes.

Today, with 80 percent of homes being built in such communities -- a percentage an industry group estimates to be even higher in the Washington area -- an entire body of law and expertise has sprung up to deal with such problems. Governing documents have grown from three pages to the size of telephone books, states have passed laws giving homeowners associations power to collect dues and place liens on homes, and real estate agents in many places are required to inform buyers about what they're getting into.

Experts say scenarios such as the one at Hidden Lake are a warning of what might lie ahead in a world that is redefining the role of government and the responsibilities -- and costs -- of homeownership. Essentially unregulated, volunteer-run associations are taking on jobs once thought of as requiring municipal expertise: assessing infrastructure, putting out bids for road projects, monitoring stormwater ponds.

Some local officials are questioning whether residents are qualified for such tasks. Others wonder whether the fees and assessments levied against homeowners in these communities amount to residents being taxed twice -- once by the association and again by the local government. And some are asking whether the association system lives up to advocates' contention that it makes communities closer -- or if it drives them apart.

Robin Stone, president of the Lake Arrowhead Civic Association in Stafford, is disillusioned. He said he believes associations establish a strict framework and rules that busy commuters can hide behind instead of connecting in a more personal way.

"In the '70s, a homeowners association was getting together at the [Joneses]," he said. "If your neighbor needed help, you sent your kids over. I think people today aren't paying for community -- they are paying for convenience."

Stone said that when he and his wife decided to move recently, "the first thing I checked was whether there was a homeowners association within 100 miles."

Like Hidden Lake, Lake Arrowhead was also opened in the 1970s as a summer community. Under its founding document, it is allowed to collect only $20 a year in dues from each homeowner. Today, with nearly 500 lots of full-time residents, the community needs as much as $300,000 to repair dams to prevent lakes from flooding roads and homes. But disagreement among residents about how community money was spent and the fact that Lake Arrowhead's covenant has expired has started a "civil war" in the community, Stone said.

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