There is a woman who rides around John Ackert’s Tallahassee subdivision in a golf cart, noting all the ways her neighbors’ homes don’t measure up to the standards set by the Southwood Residential Community Association.
Ackert is trying very hard to not detest her.
The 82-year-old retired Navy commander said he once received an official-sounding letter saying he had to take military and Special Olympics stickers off his front door, or face exile from the community’s tennis courts and swimming pool. He removed the stickers with minimum grumbling.
But a letter two weeks ago made Ackert and some of his neighbors see red. It was about the American flag.
Well, technically, it was about a vinyl mailbox covered with a picture of the American flag. Ackert put it on his mailbox a month after moving into the Southwood community in 2013 and replaced it whenever the Florida sun baked out the colors.
Recently, he said, the homeowners association wrote to him, saying the flag mailbox violated the community covenant and had to go. If he did nothing, the letter said, the HOA would fine him and could ultimately place a lien on his home.
“They said my flag mailbox ‘devalues the aesthetic value of the homes in the neighborhood,’ ” Ackert told The Washington Post, citing the line from the letter that he says irks him the most.
Ackert didn’t remove the mailbox covering. And he’s gearing up for a fight with the HOA, which he has accused of bullying him.
The mailbox, he said, “represented the American flag and something that I hold dearly.”
Jerome Simpson, the manager of the community association, told The Post that conversations with Ackert were ongoing and the association would have no comment beyond an emailed statement.
“The community honors all those actively serving in the military and the veterans who have made sacrifices for our freedom,” the statement said. “Many homes in Southwood proudly fly the American flag. In keeping with the Florida Statue, the community allows residents to display two portable flags (one American flag and one U.S. military flag), plus two additional flags on a free-standing 20-foot flagpole (one American flag and one U.S. military flag).”
The two sides plan to meet to discuss the mailbox, Ackert said.
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Ackert, who spends most of his week golfing and tending to his yard, never expected to find himself at odds with his HOA.
“If there’s anybody that has respect for rules and regulations, it’s someone who put on a uniform for 30 years,” he said.
He was drafted for Vietnam, then decided to make a career of military service.
He specialized in transportation logistics, making sure property and personnel got where they needed to go.
His Navy career helped him see the world and meet his wife. She was a Japanese secretary who frequently brought papers to a Yokohama office where Ackert was stationed. They were married in Scranton, Pa., and had a son when Ackert was 55.
He wanted to spend as much time near his son as he could. So when the younger Ackert enrolled at Florida State University, his parents left Hawaii and bought a house nearby in Tallahassee.
They picked the Southwood subdivision because of its neat yards and high standards. Ackert said he appreciates an HOA that encourages neighbors to take as much pride in their homes as he does.
“The community covenants were designed, I think, to provide a diverse community and maintain a very high standard,” he said. “They try to keep the atmosphere family friendly.”
But the letter about the mailbox got under his skin.
At their Hawaii home, he had a large flagpole in the front yard, where he flew “the biggest flag I could find.” He knew he couldn’t do that in Southwood, but he never thought twice about the mailbox covering, even if it stood out in the sea of black mailboxes in the subdivision.
He understands why the HOA would want to keep things uniform, “but I guess it’s the pettiness of it that bothers me,” he said.
Ackert said he and his neighbors occasionally have conflicts: a car stereo that’s too loud, or children who trample manicured grass. But they typically settle problems with a polite conversation and a handshake — not with a threatening form letter drafted by a lawyer.
As word of his fight with the HOA spread, some neighbors have come forward with their own HOA horror stories. One, Ackert said, was threatened with a lien because the brass numbers marking his address had rusted. Another got a terse letter for not spraying the mold off the side of his house frequently enough.
Ackert’s hearing is Tuesday. He plans to wear a cap that commemorates his service in the Navy.
He’s still working out what he’ll say and how he’ll say it.
But he knows one thing he’ll include: a suggestion to change the HOA’s method of notifying covenant violators.
The letter, he said, “strikes you as ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to go to jail.’ ”
“If somebody’s doing wrong, at least the first step should be to have someone knock on the door and have a discussion with them.”