In the old days, the neighbors gathered for hot dog picnics and Whiffle-Ball. Their Fairfax County town house subdivision has only 16 families, and everybody was pretty friendly. They joined in community cleanups, and when there was a death in one family, the neighbors chipped in for flowers, and sent over tuna casseroles and gelatin salad.
Now, some neighbors in Franconia Village aren't speaking. When Vickie Lugar parked her Ford Grenada with a "For Sale" sign on it, somebody called the police. Rose Carpenter says neighbors have accused her 11-year-old son of "squashing the grass" in the common area.
The latest chapter in the dispute -- or perhaps the culmination of it -- is a lawsuit filed this month in Fairfax County Circuit Court. Five neighbors claim they were elected officers of their community association at an annual meeting held Feb. 7. Their suit alleges that 11 days later, a second group convened and, having held a separate election, proclaimed themselves in power.
The suit asks that members of the first group be declared "the only duly elected" officers, that the court nullify actions taken at the second meeting, and that the second group be required to turn over the association's records. A court hearing date has not yet been set.
Complainants in the case are Deniese Angelino, Rose Carpenter, James King, Vickie Lugar and Stanley Matelski. The defendants are Mary Ellen Stanton, William Dawson and George Hemminger. Angelino and Hemminger are absentee owners, but the rest live on Thomas Edison Court -- a cluster of brick town houses with connecting back yards.
Stanton has declined to talk about the lawsuit. "You will have to discuss that with my attorney; but thank you for calling." Dawson also has declined to comment. Hemminger could not be reached. Their attorney, Dennis E. Ahearn, decided to say, "No comment," because the case is in litigation.
Armed with strong cups of coffee, the complainants gathered the other night in Lugar's living room, around a coffee table display of artificial flowers, to consider their version of the dispute that has split their tiny world.
"Our bottom line is that we'd just like to get this resolved so we can live in peace," said Matelski, a program manager at Gallaudet College. "This is the only solution, and it's sad."
Their view is that everything at Franconia Village went smoothly until 1984, after Carpenter was unanimously elected president of the Franconia Village Association Inc. Carpenter is a cafeteria worker for the Fairfax County Public Schools, and her friends describe her as the neighborhood den mother-cheerleader.
They say it was Carpenter who organized the neighborhood watch program after Lugar's house was broken into two years ago. Carpenter who rallied everyone to send flowers and cards to sick neighbors. Carpenter who talked county officials into building an asphalt ramp into the subdivision after neighbor James King bent his car axle going over a bad bump. Carpenter is entrusted with spare keys to some of the houses, should anybody get locked out.
What happened, they claim, was this: Carpenter's tenure as association president coincided with a growing movement on the part of Franconia Village's eight town house owner-residents to limit the role of its eight town house renters in decision making, on grounds that owners have more at stake.
Carpenter is a renter. According to her association's rules, only owners can vote on money issues, said the group's attorney, Howard Silberberg. But there was nothing in the rules to prevent her from holding office or a board position. Carpenter also had a signed proxy from her building owner, giving her a voice. She says there was rising sentiment in the neighborhood against renters, which she has found hard to take. "It made me feel like I'm trash and dirt under their feet," she said.
The battle lines didn't break cleanly between renters and owners; lots of factors intruded, including old friendships, life style, and the rules under which people wanted to live.
Tension first erupted over the common areas, where children frequently gathered for Whiffle-Ball and, while playing, scuffed up the grass. At least once, the police were called to kick them out, Matelski claims. With nowhere else to play, except in the street or across busy Franconia Road at the Edison High School ballfields, the games stopped and hard feelings festered.
Last spring, several neighbors convened an association meeting in Wade Bolt's living room, the complainants allege. Carpenter says she wasn't invited, but went anyway. "I tried to say a few things," she said, "but I didn't get too much out. They said they were going to call for a new election."
Nothing happened immediately. But, by last summer, the atmosphere at Franconia Village had become so electric that the annual hot dog and bingo picnic was held behind Carpenter's house, not, as it usually is, on the common ground. There were other alleged unpleasantries, too.
Matelski is angered by the memory of a midnight knock on his front door, when someone asked him to move his car. He claims he had parked it with the tires just touching the yellow line that divides his space from that of a neighbor. "There wasn't any significant encroachment," he said.
Hard feelings escalated, and on Aug. 9 the defendants conducted their own election, the lawsuit claims. They installed Bolt as president, Dawson as vice president, and Stanton as treasurer. Stanton, who had acted as treasurer for several years, kept the records, and has refused to return them, the suit alleges.
In addition, the lawsuit claims, Stanton's group moved to change the corporate name of the "Franconia Village Association Inc." to the "Franconia Village Homeowners Association Inc." and to pass new bylaws that exclude renters from holding offices or sitting on the board of directors.
This didn't sit too well with Carpenter and her friends. On Feb. 7, they held their own annual meeting and elected Matelski as their new president, Carpenter as secretary, King as vice president and Lugar as treasurer.
Matelski says he typed up minutes of that meeting, sealed them in a manila envelope, and sent them off to his neighbors. Within minutes, he alleges, a package reappeared at his front door, with the words "This Is Trash" scrawled in ink across the front.
Life in the neighborhood has deteriorated, the group feels, claiming they do not have enough say in the decision making. "It's a little Manila," Matelski said. "It's a Marcos dictatorship versus a democracy."
An especially sore memory is the quarrel over whether Franconia Village would stick with gas street lamps or switch to electric ones. "The way they were going about it, they wanted to shove the electric lights down everybody's throat," Carpenter said. "Amen," her friends murmured.
Larry Straszewski, a renter, says he's getting the "cold shoulder" from former friends.
Matelski misses the laughter of children playing ball and touch football. "It's almost like a retirement community now," Matelski said. "It's like nobody's supposed to live here. 'Let's have a Procreation Committee and not have children.' "
Carpenter, her feet curled up on Lugar's couch, says she's still trying to figure out why some of the neighbors have rejected her leadership. Remember two year's worth of attendance at neighborhood watch meetings? And somebody might have broken a car axle if she hadn't gotten that bump fixed.
More than anything, she wants to return to the days of bingo and shared dinners, and she misses the sight of the whole village -- plastic trash bags in hand -- picking bottles and fast-food wrappers out of the bushes.
But then there's the lawsuit, and her hope that filing it might prompt an out-of-court settlement, is fading.