Purple shutters, chartreuse window trim and pointy stockade fences are no-nos in the Charles County communities Louise Shaffer oversees. But as a homeowners association manager, Shaffer has little leverage to force property owners to follow the rules.
This fall, Charles will offer homeowners associations and the people who live in these increasingly popular "common communities" a new venue to resolve their differences. As soon as September, associations and residents will be able to complain to a panel of their peers that will review disputes, offer mediation and, in some cases, issue rulings.
The program is designed to provide a less expensive way to untangle neighborhood disagreements over maintenance, renovations or storm-water drainage. The seven-member board will be made up of residents and professionals.
Shaffer, who first pressed the county to provide the service, is hoping it will offer what she says is a much-needed outlet.
"Other than taking people to court to get them to do these things -- which is very expensive -- there's no alternative," said Shaffer, who manages four communities. "Even after you send out the notice, you send them letter after letter, there's just no other resolution."
Nationwide, 274,000 communities are governed by associations, more than twice the 130,000 that existed in 1990, according to figures from the nonprofit Community Associations Institute in Virginia.
Frank Rathbun, a spokesman for the institute, said the organization supports the concept of mediation as long as the mediators "do not usurp the governing documents of an association."
These private contracts, he said, preserve the nature of a community and protect property values.
"Sometimes they may fly in the face of individual preferences,'' he said, "but without them there are no controls over how a house looks or a yard looks."
Florida has an alternative dispute-resolution program, and Nevada has an ombudsman's office where residents and associations can file complaints. The Charles board was inspired by a similar commission created in Montgomery County in 1991, which officials believe is the only such board in the nation.
Montgomery charges a $50 filing fee per complaint and handles roughly 60 cases each year, although the number of cases is increasing, officials there said. The quasi-judicial hearings result in formal decisions or orders, which can be appealed to a circuit court.
"The commission is very rarely overturned and in most cases not appealed," said Evan Johnson, who oversees Montgomery's Commission on Common Ownership Communities.
In a review of 126 cases filed from 2000 to 2003, the county found that more than one-third -- 35.7 percent -- of the disputes were resolved before reaching formal mediation. About 20 percent ended after mediation, and 25 percent went to hearings that resulted in decisions by the commission. Overall, the study found that 55.5 percent of cases were closed before formal involvement by the commission.
Charles County officials expect to charge a $75 filing fee. County attorneys have projected that 10 cases will be filed each year, with just two of those resulting in formal hearings before the board.
Commissioner Candice Quinn Kelly (R-La Plata) has firsthand experience with such disputes as the owner of Maredith Management, which administers 60 homeowners associations in Prince George's and Charles counties.
In St. Charles, for instance, Kelly recalled a dispute involving a resident who did not seek permission before converting a sloping backyard into a flat, golf-course-like landscape. When it rained, the new grading created big gullies in neighboring yards, she said. The association spent $3,000 to hire attorneys and engineers to try to resolve the issue in court.
"We don't want to have residents battling with each other because they are in a constant state of disagreement," Kelly said. "We want to have viable, friendly, happy communities."
The county is accepting applications from prospective board members through Aug. 19. For more information, call county commissioners Clerk Linda Rollins at 301-645-0554 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.