The $35 wooden mailbox Keith Strong bought in 2009 seemed charming and functional for the home he shared with his wife in a posh golf community in the suburbs of Washington. It was a newer version of the mailbox the homeowners association previously approved and had sat at the end of their driveway since the couple moved to their Bowie-area home four years earlier.
But no more than two months after Strong installed his new mailbox, he received an order to dump it — for a $500 mailbox upgrade.
The board of the homeowners association voted to require all residents in the Woodmore golf community to buy metal mailboxes, monogrammed with the letter “W” and mounted on a decorative post.
The $500 mailbox mandate angered Strong and others in the community, launching him into a seven-year fight that finally ended this month when a Prince George’s County judge signed, sealed and delivered a ruling that the board of the Pleasant Prospect Home Owners’ Association overstepped its bounds with its postal pronouncements.
It’s a victory that cost Strong $33,000 in legal fees — roughly the price of 66 of the new bronze-colored mailboxes.
But the battle was worth the expense, according to the solar physicist who works with NASA.
“It wasn’t just about a mailbox,” Strong said. “The issue really here is property rights. If they were granted this power, where does this stop? It also opens up the whole community to other possible abuses of that power.”
The civil fight — known in some court circles as “the $500 mailbox case” — is one in a line of feuds between homeowners associations seeking to maintain pleasing communities through quality of life standards and property owners who fear individual rights are being trampled by quasi-political bodies run amok.
Or, as Circuit Court Judge Leo E. Green Jr. said in his order requiring the mailbox rules be removed: “This is the slippery slope they [the Strongs] seek to level.”
The mailbox melee in the community of million-dollar homes outside the Capital Beltway and about 30 minutes south of Goddard Space Flight Center began in 2008, when some members of the Pleasant Prospect Home Owners’ Association worried the cedar models were in disrepair and owners began receiving violations for the eyesores.
Working with community members and an “architectural committee,” the board voted in August 2009 to require a new “powdercoated, rustproof, cast aluminum model” and gave residents in the Prince George’s County community until January 2013 to get their new boxes before they would face fines of $100 a month.
“The association was trying to maintain uniform and harmonious standards in the community,” said Justin Cameron, the attorney representing the homeowners association. “There were alternative mailboxes that the board would approve that were not $500.”
Some in the community, however, balked at the prices and also argued that the board should have asked for a vote of the entire community to enact such a change.
Ruth Wright, a real estate agent who fought the new mailbox rules, also filed a lawsuit against the board. She said she was certain the association didn’t have the right to tell her to pay for the new mailbox, but she eventually relented, fearing the $100 monthly fine would mount and blemish her financial record.
“I get so emotional talking about this mailbox,” said Wright, who has owned a home in the community since 1992. “So many other neighborhoods are doing the same thing.”
The Strongs did not waver.
Strong and his wife, Yvonne, who had just had solar panels installed on the roof of their home, worried that if the association went after the mailbox, the solar panels could be next— improvements that cost thousands of dollars.
Strong kept his wooden mailbox, argued at community meetings that the board did not have the authority to enact the change and began racking up fines for being out of compliance.
The homeowners association offered to buy his mailbox and waive a portion of the fines. Meanwhile, Strong wanted to take the fight to a mediator in the Maryland attorney general’s office.
After years of back and forth, the case wound up in court, with a three-day trial before Green in May and his decision months later.
“They [the HOA] have mandated a specific change to the property that the homeowner must purchase,” the judge’s order said. “The homeowner is not saying ‘I want to make a change’ but the board is telling the homeowner ‘You must make a change.’ As the higher courts have instructed us, we must lean in favor of freedom in the property.”
Cameron doesn’t view the judge’s order as a complete neutering of the homeowners association’s power over architectural guidelines.
“They have the right to adopt the guideline,” Cameron said. “The court says they didn’t have the right to enforce the guidelines the way it did. They need to have a more reasonable phase-in period. We’re working with them to figure out a way to adopt it properly.”
Matthew Skipper, who represented the Strongs in court, said the board should have enacted the change with a vote of the community and offered more notice of the change.
Skipper said the victory is a win for homeowners everywhere.
“This was an opportunity to object in a reasonable way,” Skipper said. “Typically you see a lot of communities give up, and that’s what precisely would have happened. It’s not about the cost of living and cost of a mailbox. It is about the power and authority of an HOA.”
Today, about 96 percent of the nearly 400 homes in the Woodmore community have the HOA-mandated mailboxes.
But there is one house on Longwater Drive that will remain a holdout.
Strong has purchased a new wooden mailbox like he did seven years ago, and he plans to install it to celebrate his victory.