When the homeowner’s association accused the couple in 2014 of violating its covenant, the Pughs filed suit.
“This meadow existed before any neighbors were here,” said Mike Pugh, 58, who runs his own record producing business from the ranch-style home he bought for $785,000 in 2005. “The meadow is a key feature of this property, and to remove it would diminish the property.”
Last Tuesday, the day before the case was to go to trial in Loudoun County Circuit Court, the homeowners association rescinded the violation so the association “could assess the language in the covenant,” president Marcus Lopez said.
The case was dismissed Wednesday.
The Pughs declared victory, and said they will seek to recover the $90,000 they said they spent on attorney’s fees.
But the homeowners association, in a letter to its members, said, “With a dismissal, there is no prevailing party.” Another association letter noted: “The only real loser is a homeowner who has their greatest asset diminished by a noncompliant neighbor.”
From pasture to lawns
Farmington on the Green, an enclave of mostly large homes on large lots about 50 miles west of Washington, was built in the 1980s and 1990s on the site of an old dairy farm.
The meadow, Pugh said, was originally pasture, which evolved into a more biologically diverse plot once cows stopped grazing. A Fairfax County restoration ecologist Pugh employed told him the soil there has not been disturbed since that time.
“This is not a lawn, it has never been a lawn,” Pugh said.
The previous two owners of the property, he said, cut the grasses and woody plants back once a year, in early spring, then left it to nature. After Pugh moved in, he continued that practice, and began seeding and transplanting native plants and wildflowers.
Behind their property is a common area for the homeowners association. Next door is an old farm that’s now a bed-and-breakfast. One neighbor’s lot touches a piece of the Pughs’ property, but its view is shielded at this time of year by the lush vegetation growing on both the association’s property and private lots.
Cultivating the private meadow, Pugh said, bothers nobody and is his right as a property owner.
But Lopez said that’s not the case at all. Pugh, he said, refuses to follow his neighborhood’s rules or to resolve the issue by compromise.
“His campaign on Facebook and Twitter in which he talks poorly about the neighborhood and drags down the neighborhood has upset a lot of people,” Lopez said. “There’s a principle involved. If you have one exception, how do you hold a neighborhood to a standard?”
While the meadow is only somewhat visible from the road or adjacent lots in high summer, Lopez said, it can be seen much more easily at other times of the year.
The existence of a meadow instead of a trimmed green lawn, with grasses and bushes that rise from two to five feet tall, “is not a standard our neighbors want,” Lopez said.
The homeowners association rules require that property owners “keep each lot owned . . . in good order and repair and free of debris, including but not limited to . . . the mowing of all lawns, the pruning and cutting of all trees and shrubbery.”
So in some ways, the battle between the Pughs and the association came down to what the meaning of a “lawn” is.
Chickens and court
The animosity began in about 2011, the Pughs said, after Sian Pugh, 56, began to raise a flock of Andalusian chickens in their backyard.
For six months, she and her husband said, no one was aware of the coop or the flock, until someone spotted the fowl and complained to the board.
Livestock, including chickens, are firmly prohibited by the association’s covenants, and the Pughs were forced to remove the flock to the adjacent farm, where they have now been sold off, donated or consumed by resident foxes.
Mike Pugh, who admitted the couple was in the wrong, said that’s when some anti-chicken people began asking how he would like it if the association made him mow his meadow.
In January 2014, the homeowners association notified the Pughs that their meadow also violated the covenant, and warned that the board would not approve any potential sale of the property unless the meadow was removed. The violation notice did not fine the couple, nor did it put a lien on the property.
The Pughs, who have no plans to sell their property, said they tried to reason with their neighbors and seek a discussion at an association board meeting, to no avail.
They then stewed about the notice for 11 months. In November 2014, they sued.
Lopez said his board, whose legal representation in the lawsuit is covered by insurance, kept trying to compromise. While most homeowners mow about once a week during the growing season, he said, the board offered to let the Pughs mow the meadow only as often as the association’s common property is mowed, which is every four weeks.
They then offered to withdraw the violation notice if the Pughs would cut the meadow three times a year.
With the lawsuit dismissed, the association is barred from refiling the violation notice against the Pughs under its current rules. But Lopez said the board plans to work on tightening up the language in its covenant “so we will be able to avoid similar situations in the future.”
The association members will have a final vote on any new language, Lopez said, and on whether to allow a meadow in the midst of their neighborhood.