When a city or county government plans to build a landfill, widen a highway or close a playground, neighborhood associations swing into action. The reason: Maintain property values.
And that's also the reason that such groups impose strict rules about front door color or the permissible time to fly flags, sometimes to the annoyance of some residents or the derision of outsiders.
But well-run associations can have a role in upholding other values, too. "A neighborhood association is about connecting people in a society that is becoming highly fragmented," said Richard C. Harwood, president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a Bethesda nonprofit.
Under that guise, an association can plan an annual Halloween parade or a newcomer's welcome party, plant flowers each spring or testify before city or county government about parks, trails, schools or roads. For example, in the Bannockburn section of Bethesda, one of the neighborhood associations has sponsored an annual spring show since 1957. Residents ranging from 8 to more than 80 years old perform on the stage of the community's clubhouse.
That's a role these groups can fill whether membership is mandatory -- generally called a homeowners', condominium or community association -- or voluntary -- usually known as a civic or neighborhood association.
Associations "do whatever it takes to teach people that when they move there, they become part of the greater community, said Paul D. Grucza, president of the Community Associations Institute, an Alexandria nonprofit that serves association-governed communities.
And that, in turn, can help maintain property values.
"There's no question that property values are higher in a neighborhood with a center nucleus, where families can do things together and meet other people" than on a street in a more isolated area, said Diana Keeling, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Bethesda, and a performer in this year's Bannockburn spring show.
"The majority of families with young children are looking for and willing to pay extra for a neighborhood with a swimming pool, clubhouse or other place to go to meet other families. . . . To them it's almost priceless," she said.
Strong social networks among neighbors are not built by having "a few key leaders running the neighborhood association well," but rather by involving as many people as possible, said Thomas H. Sander, executive director of the Civic Engagement in America project at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
There is no magic formula for turning an inactive or ineffective neighborhood association into a more vibrant one. Still, experts say that with some effort, members can build a more effective association that promotes community ties. Here are some strategies:
* Cast a wide net when trying to get residents involved. Lack of involvement is the biggest problem facing neighborhood associations. Dan Wilhelm, president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation, a non-partisan organization composed primarily of civic associations, said: "Usually, about 1 percent of people are involved in the citizens association, if you're lucky, then 2 percent."
To attract more people, recruit uninvolved residents for the nominating committee, who then recruit other uninvolved people to serve on the board, said Dan Feer, president of the Chantilly Highlands Association, a homeowners association in Herndon. By recruiting people who haven't been involved before, "you get an infusion of fresh ideas and, with any luck, an infusion of enthusiasm," he said. Also, recruit the busiest people in the neighborhood, Feer advised. "They know how to manage their time," he said.
Don't rely on empty nesters or retirees to be the core of the volunteer effort, Feer added. "Doing so means constantly relying on the same people," who may burn out.
* Choose focal issues carefully and keep meetings interesting. If there is no pressing matter, such as a local theater closing or a highway being constructed nearby, people may not show up for meetings. "Where all is going right, there is little involvement because there's nothing to catch people's interest," said John Antonelli, president of the Columbia Heights Civic Association in Arlington. To catch people's attention, invite representatives from the community to a meeting to discuss perennially important issues such as schools, traffic or crime.
Don't make the meetings too structured, said Harwood. "They should be formal enough so the group can move forward, but informal enough so that . . . there is room to talk, disagree and discuss and for people to feel connected in civic life," he said. Also, allow time for socializing among neighbors and don't allow for too much complaining, he added.
* Choose leaders carefully. Choose someone who is dedicated to the organization and doesn't have ulterior motives. You don't want someone who just wants to use the office as a platform for moving up to elected office, said Harwood. Leaders also need to be patient and know how to compromise, particularly with developers, who often have a different idea of what is best for the community, Wilhelm said.
* If you want to be a leader, move up the ladder slowly. It can take a while to grasp the topics that civic associations work on. Start by getting familiar with the organization, attending meetings and serving on a committee. Then move on to being a committee chair or taking a board position.
As your involvement increases, learn the ropes of city or county government. "You need to get to know people in the community, at [Maryland-National Capital] Park and Planning, on task forces, so they can get to know you. You need to do your homework by going to meetings, reading documents, and finding out what's been done before, how the system is set up, and what the rules and special exceptions are," Wilhelm said.
* Consider an interactive neighborhood Web site. Flyers and newsletters are fine, but they are usually published once a month or less and don't provide a means for discussion. A Web site may be better because "it can open up civic dialogue . . . and broadcast information instantaneously" said Ted Pinkowitz, president and chief executive of the Colorado company Neighborhood Link, which provides free interactive Web sites to neighborhood and homeowners associations.
"Our feedback has said that whereas typically the same five or 10 people show up at neighborhood meetings and their voice was the voice of the community, now 50 people are brought together" on the Web site. The site enables members to read the latest news, share their opinions and raise issues of concern at their own convenience, Pinkowitz said.
"It's hard for many people to go out at 7 p.m. for a neighborhood meeting but easy to voice their concerns at 11 p.m. after the kids are asleep," he said. Pinkowitz likens the discussion groups to "coffee chats online" where "people who might never have spoken because they live four blocks away from each other now communicate."
* Enjoy the experience of civic participation. Wilhelm has been involved in Montgomery County civic associations for about 25 years and likes the role of neighborhood activist. "I feel like I'm helping the overall community, like I'm doing something to make society better," he said.
Besides, he added, "it gets you out of the house as opposed to sitting home watching TV."