Shortly after slicing open the letter from his condo association, Larry Murphree was seeing red.
But the “unauthorized object” in question was a 17-inch American flag that he had placed in a flower pot. And Murphree, who says he spent half a dozen years as an air traffic controller in the Air Force, wasn’t budging.
“I lost it,” Murphree said of his state on receiving the letter. “It just dawned on me there’s people that strap on a gun every day to protect me and the people I love. It’s a small flag, but it stands for a big thank you.”
Thus began a saga that has consumed the past seven years of Murphree’s life and several hundred thousand dollars he had squirreled away to live in the retirement community.
Three years ago, it cost him his house.
He sold his home in the wake of mounting fees and a lien placed on it by the condominium association. Foreclosure was imminent, he said, and the ordeal had soured his desire to live in the community. Still, his stand has been costly and he was recently granted a court date for a trial, where he’ll try to recoup his lost money. He’s suing for $1 million.
“He’s probably lost . . . hundreds of thousands of dollars of his retirement money, not to mention the time he’ll never get back from having to fight this battle,” his attorney, Gust Sarris, told The Washington Post.
Nearly a decade ago, Murphree was one of the first people to buy a house at the Tides Condominiums at Sweetwater, where the homes are owned by people over 55. He cut the ribbon during an opening ceremony, and other residents nicknamed him “The Mayor.”
He liked that his gated community would be safe, and it had many amenities to keep him busy: indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts, a huge clubhouse that had just been finished.
The only problem was the mind-numbing sameness of the place — condos he said looked so similar that neighbors frequently pulled into the wrong driveway.
Any attempts at personalization were frowned upon, if not openly rejected by the homeowners associations. Monitors drove around, looking for violations. Neighbors told stories of having to dig up flowers they had placed around mailboxes or letters about taking down inappropriate Christmas lights.
Things got worse, Murphree said, when a new homeowners association board was elected and “they kept tightening the noose.”
The flag was the final straw, and Sarris said it came down to a simple principle: “Should any man who served in the military lose his home, a retirement home, because they want to be patriotic? Anybody can see that the HOA has gone overboard.”
Representatives for the homeowners association did not return calls or messages seeking comment. The community’s bylaws allow residents to fly flags on poles but not to place them in flower pots, court documents say.
Murphree pleaded his case during HOA board meetings, then went to federal and state courts. His attorney said they had “been in every court that we could be in.”
He argued that Florida laws and federal statutes allow people to display the U.S. flag. The Freedom to Display the American Flag Act prohibits HOAs and condo associations from stopping residents from displaying the flag. But it allows what it deems reasonable restrictions.
Murphree thought he had won the battle in April 2012, when the condo association settled with him, paid his court fees and allowed him to keep his flag in his flower pot. Old Glory could stay, the settlement said.
But a short time later, the condo association drafted new rules that didn’t mention flags, but instead governed how residents could display flower pots, dirt and watering bulbs.
“Once again,” one of Murphree’s lawsuits says, “Murphree began to incur fines of $100 per day for displaying the same American flag in the same flower pot, with the same flower and dirt in the same limited common area despite the fact that no changes were made since the settlement agreement was executed.”
Murphree continued to ignore the homeowners association’s threats. Making things worse during that time, he said, he had neck surgery and spent months in a fog.
He says that’s why he missed it when, at some point, the homeowners association began using the money they were withdrawing for his dues to pay the fines. Unknown to Murphree, he had fallen way behind on his HOA dues.
He claims the condo association began to nitpick, tagging him for not parking his car appropriately in his driveway, or powering his Christmas lights with a solar panel instead of a battery.
Facing foreclosure, he decided to sell his house at a financial loss three years ago. He moved in with the woman who would become his wife.
His new place is in St. Augustine and so far, he said, he’s had no problems.
One thing he likes about his community: a local veterans group places flags along the main drag on some national holidays.
And the community doesn’t restrict the placement of flags on individual properties. Murphree has eight, including one in a flower pot on his front porch.