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War hero wins fight with Va. homeowners group over flagpole

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By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Great Flagpole Dispute of 2009 started last summer when Van T. Barfoot, a retired Army colonel who single-handedly took on three Nazi tanks in World War II, moved to the Sussex Square neighborhood near Richmond to be closer to his daughter. Barfoot believes in flying the colors of the nation he loves, so he erected a flagpole in his front yard.

Like thousands of developments across the country, Sussex Square is governed by a homeowners association, which controls the neighborhood's aesthetics. The association ordered Barfoot, a 90-year-old Medal of Honor recipient, to remove his flagpole.

By the time the flagpole battle ended this week, after threats of litigation, accusations of anti-Americanism and indignation that spilled far beyond the development's boundaries to become fodder for a nation of talking heads and blogging pundits, even Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and the Obama administration had chimed in.

In the end, it took the combined forces of the American Legion, members of Congress, untold numbers of sympathetic veterans and the spokesman for the leader of the free world to persuade the homeowners association to back off its threat to sue a war hero. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) finally brokered a deal that will allow Barfoot to keep his flagpole.

"All my life, from childhood to now, I have been able to fly the flag," Barfoot told supporters standing outside his house Wednesday. "In the time I have left, I plan to continue to fly the American flag without interference."

The rules at Sussex Square are simple: "No building, fence, flagpole, wall, improvement or other structure" may be put up without the association's approval. Like the nearly 60 million Americans who live in communities governed by homeowners associations, Barfoot and his neighbors must seek approval before even painting their house a different color.

Still, when Barfoot erected his 21-foot-tall flagpole, said his attorney, John Honey, "he believed he was within his legal rights."

The legalities quickly became secondary to the explosion of outrage about what appeared to many to be a suppression of patriotism. After the association ordered removal of the flagpole, Richmond area news outlets reported on the controversy. Soon, there was a "We Support Col Van T. Barfoot's (Ret) Effort To Fly The U.S. Flag" page on Facebook (as of Wednesday: 48,000 members and counting). Outraged bloggers posted and tweeted the name and phone number of the association's president, urging people to give him an earful.

The American Legion issued a statement saying that the homeowners association "underestimated the fight left in this elderly veteran, and now they have to contend with the determination and persistence of Col. Barfoot's 2.5 million friends in The American Legion."

Barfoot is known in Virginia for his wartime heroism and his service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. His Medal of Honor citation credits his "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity" while fighting in Italy in 1944. Barfoot took out two enemy machine gun perches, which led to the surrender of a third. Later, he "took up an exposed position directly in front of three advancing Mark VI tanks" and fired on one with a bazooka, scaring the other two away. Earlier this year, Virginia's legislature named a stretch of Route 16 the "Col. Van T. Barfoot Medal of Honor Highway."

So when news of the flagpole battle flared, officials rallied around the war hero. Kaine said it was "ridiculous" that the association was requiring Barfoot to take the flagpole down.

On Monday, during a briefing that dealt mainly with the environment, the economy, health care and Afghanistan, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said he thought it was "silly" that Barfoot "can't have a flagpole and show the proper respect and appreciation that any flag deserves by flying that in their neighborhood."

And on Tuesday, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) introduced a resolution seeking to allow Medal of Honor recipients "to properly display the flag" on their property.

But the homeowners association said it never had a problem with the flag -- residents may fly flags that are mounted to the sides of their homes, and many do. The problem was with the pole. By requesting its removal, the association said in a statement, it was "discharging its duty to all the owners in the neighborhood." The request was "never intended . . . as an affront to [Barfoot's] patriotism." Calls to the association president were not returned.

The association's rules might seem overly burdensome, even petty, to those who think property owners should be able to do as they wish on their land. But such restrictions are common and are designed to "protect property values, maintain the look and curb appeal of a community and to meet the established expectations of the neighborhood," said Frank Rathbun, spokesman for the Community Associations Institute.

Barfoot's fight was not the first time a homeowner has clashed with an association over flags. In 2005, Congress passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.) guaranteeing the right to fly a flag in communities governed by homeowners associations, as long as residents do so in accordance with association rules.

Sally Hedleston, who lives two doors down from Barfoot, called him a "lovely gentleman" and said she has no objection to the flagpole. She said residents told the association board that if it didn't approve Barfoot's request, "this is going to get national attention and we're going to be considered jerks and very unpatriotic. And that's what happened."


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