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Homeowners Groups Fight to Stay Afloat
Costs, Responsibilities Overwhelm Volunteers

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up at first-generation, association-run communities across the country as they deal with aging infrastructure and outdated or poorly written covenants that make it impossible to enforce rules, increase dues to cover rising costs or resolve disputes.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

At this point, only half the residents pay dues, and the association can't afford the cost of filing liens against homes of those who don't comply. The lakes' beaches were shut down this summer because there was no money to operate them.

The group, along with Hidden Lake's, wants the county to establish a "service district" that would increase real estate taxes in the neighborhood to pay for necessary repairs.

Some experts and supporters of homeowners associations say many of the problems faced by older communities won't be repeated because people have learned from the mistakes. The association structure typically is created by the developer -- usually as a requirement by the local government, happy to be free of responsibility for infrastructure costs. And developers now have staff, publications and conferences devoted to helping associations function.

"I think in communities that have done the appropriate planning, [the association system] works pretty well," said Frank Rathbun, a spokesman for the Community Associations Institute, an industry group for association-related businesses. The group estimates that 55 million Americans live in association-run communities, up from 2 million in 1970. Rathbun said the key to an association's success is having a reserve fund and periodically hiring experts to evaluate big-ticket items and the group's savings plan.

"If you didn't save, you're stuck borrowing and paying interest or levying a special assessment, and that comes as quite a shock to people. A lot of people don't read all the paperwork," he said.

In addition, many older association-run communities have failed to file the proper paperwork with the state and therefore lack the authority to enforce their rules.

Stafford County Supervisor Robert Gibbons (R-Rock Hill), whose district includes Lake Arrowhead and Hidden Lake, said the system is "a mess."

"Everything is dumped on the homeowner," he said.

More and more of these communities are turning to their governments for help. Stafford County requires a petition showing that a majority of a community's residents support the creation of a special taxing district before supervisors will vote to do so. Such a petition is circulating in Lake Arrowhead, and Gibbons will meet Thursday with Hidden Lake residents to explain how they can do the same.

Gravely said many of Hidden Lake's newer residents come to the quiet spot near the Fauquier County line from cities or communities where they were used to having services taken care of for them. "They see this as a refuge -- not what it takes to maintain that refuge," she said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company