Last spring Joseph Soraci, a financial analyst who lives in Fairfax County, drove to a Toys 'R' Us store and bought a dark brown and beige swing set for his 3-year-old son.
Now the $155 swing set's color is the center of a controversy that threatens to land Soraci in court. His Franklin Farm community has a rule that swing sets must be either all brown or all green. Soraci, 28, has been ordered to remove the swing set or paint it.
"I've obviously got to do something," he said. "I may just take the darned thing down."
An increasing number of people in planned communities across the country find that what they can do on their property is governed by rules that can affect everything from the colors of swing sets and basketball backboards to front yard fence styles.
While many neighborhood officials say that they do not keep track of complaints, clearly some residents think the rules sometimes go too far.
"I'm kind of disgusted over the whole situation," said Fairfax County resident Vicki Sullivan, who has argued with her community over fencing. "I can live with a few rules, but this is ridiculous."
The rules to which Sullivan refers are interpretations of "covenants." To varying degrees, they control life in about 70 percent of the recently built subdivisions in this area, said Douglas Kleine of the national Community Associations Institute in Alexandria.
"Today, it would be hard to find a new house for sale in Washington that doesn't have a set of covenant restrictions and a homeowners association that goes along with it," said Kleine.
Supporters say esthetic guidelines keep neighborhoods looking trim and help boost property values. But detractors say they feel as though they live in a police state.
Typically, covenant guidelines suggest the colors for houses or fence styles for yards. But some discourage bird feeders, window air conditioners or hanging laundry -- unless screened "to break up the detailed appearance" of wash drying on a line. Some of the local covenant restrictions include:
*In Reston, free-standing basketball backboards generally must be painted gray-brown -- "the color of wet bark in the winter" -- and back yard barbecues "should not be a dominant feature on the landscape."
In addition, Reston doghouses should generally be hidden in the woods, or be compatible with the house in color and material. Sun awnings may not have "decorative embellishments," such as fringes.
*In Burke Centre, near Fairfax City, grass must be maintained between two and six inches tall. And dented mailboxes or mailboxes that do not conform with the regulation shape and color are frowned upon.
*In Maryland's Montgomery Village, residents may not park boats or pickup trucks in their driveways.
*Wood shingles are frowned upon in Fairfax's Hollin Hills subdivision; fluted classical columns and fancy wrought iron also are "foreign" to the community's style, according to its covenant.
The best-known recent local covenant incident involved Max Parsons of the Franklin Farm community and his fight to put a camouflaged satellite dish in his yard, which he finally won.
Nor are covenants merely a local phenomenon:
*In Denver, a development has a restriction against leaving garage doors open.
*In New Jersey, a high-rise condominium requires curtains to be lined in white or beige, so that from the front all windows look the same.
*In Miami, one town house community recently considered whether to allow a state trooper to park his squad car in his driveway. The question: Was the squad car a crime deterrent or an eyesore?
The community decided it was a deterrent, but asked the trooper to park it near the subdivision entrance -- about a quarter of a mile from his house -- where would-be burglars would see it more readily.
There are no recent studies on the effect of covenants on property values, said Kleine, but the guidelines often ensure that all the homeowners keep their properties in shape, thus protecting property values for the neighborhood.
"Most people continue to find it desirable to live in a place where there are controls," said Pat Huson, executive director of the Montgomery Village Foundation.
"I personally think it's super," said Sam Petros, a real estate agent with Century 21, who said that restricted properties sell faster and easier than those without covenants. "I'm 100 percent for them."
Neighborhood association officials emphasize that the restrictions written into covenants are not just meddlesome rules focusing on doghouses and dented mailboxes, or outlawing such "obvious no-nos" as pink flamingos on the lawn.
But architectural review committees can spend hours debating the finer points of shrubbery and flagpoles, stockade fences and clotheslines. And the disputes often center on the little things: the wrong creosote stain, or a blue door trim that "doesn't work well."
Even the family vegetable garden is sometimes subject to scrutiny.
"While vegetable gardens offer certain rewards, gardens and gardening equipment can often be unsightly," one community notes. Proper screening is advised.
Most arguments are resolved before adjudication, and court challenges -- unless they involve discrimination largely have been unsuccessful, lawyers say.
In the last few years, Reston has initiated about 50 lawsuits based on disregard of its covenant, and almost all have been settled out of court, said David Wells, the community's covenants administrator.
"We've never lost one," he added.
Montgomery Village's Huson estimates that only four or five disputes have gone to court in the past 20 years.
"We try not to be unreasonable," she said.
The case of the electronic picnic table, for example, was resolved before it could go to court. Parsons was allowed to keep his $3,000 satellite dish, but had to sink it into the specially built well of a new patio.
Resolving covenant disputes is not an easy job, according to A.J. Evans, chairman of the architectural review committee for Fairfax's California contemporary-style community of Hollin Hills. He said that some people are cooperative, while others are antagonistic.
"They think we're out to get them," Evans said. "They don't understand that we're working for the community of which they're a part."
Charles Chadbourn III, a Navy professor and director of the Naval War College's off-campus program in Washington, recently paid an architect $1,000 to design an addition to his Fairfax County house.
Chadbourn said the architect tried eight designs but none satisfied his subdivision's review committee, which includes an aeronautical engineer, two architects and a lawyer with an interest in design.
Frustrated, Chadbourn said that he will go back to his original plan and build anyway.
"I'll fight it, if it comes to that," he said.
Ted Becker, a Chantilly artist, has a different problem: He owns a Pace Arrow motor home that he drives cross-country to art shows. When in residence, he likes to park the motor home in his driveway, where he can keep an eye on it.
Becker offered to block the view of the 28-foot motor home by planting evergreens. Residents of his Franklin Glen subdivision are not convinced that the vehicle, "because of its size," will be adequately screened.
"I'm not going to move it," Becker said. "There is no way, even if the thing goes to court. I guess I'll have to find a new home to go to. I mean, nobody would want to see their neighbor putting chartreuse shutters on, but I think they are just going overboard with this thing. It has just gotten out of hand."