For emphasis, the professionally printed red-and-white sign is accented with a drawing of a target behind the word “YOU.”
A neighborhood squabble over nine decorative milk jugs, some planter buckets and an artistic rendering of an early American flag has escalated to a sign-sized war of words that has consumed the Alford Meadows neighborhood in Loveland, just north of Denver.
The conflict motivated Stephens to walk into a printer’s shop and drop $300 on the sign, which is bolted to a frame in the front yard he mows twice a week.
The dispute has morphed into a case study of what happens when homeowners clash with the boards set up to maintain exacting community standards and protect property values.
And there seems little chance that this brouhaha will end in a neighborly handshake: Stephens told The Washington Post that speaking through lawyers may be the only way to ensure that his concerns aren’t swept under the rug.
Well, that and the 32-square-foot yard sign he erected in front of his house.
“We tried talking to the members, but they shut me down,” the former mechanic with New York state corrections told The Post. “I’m not a legal scholar. I came here to retire, not to put up with some bulls— from a homeowners association.”
The controversy started in April, according to correspondence the homeowner shared with The Post. Alford Meadows notified Stephens and his wife that their yard was a little, well, busy.
The letter alluded to “additions to the outside of your property, which are growing in number and type. … You have visible from the roads and sidewalks, approximately nine milk churns, thirteen buckets and cans, plus tables, chairs, statue-type items, plus other assorted items, and attached to the side of your house, a star and a painted wooden object.”
Colleen Stephens had hand-painted many of the items, including the antique-looking milk cans and a wooden shipping palette that depicted a Revolutionary War-era American flag.
The HOA’s letter said it wanted most of the objects gone.
Attached to the letter were pages from the community covenant that lays down the law on lawn decorations.
It goes into exacting detail about the amount of “living plant material” required in a yard (75 percent) the coloring of rain gutters (muted) and whether residents can have gazebos (nope).
The letter, sent by certified mail, says the Stephenses were welcome to request a hearing. If not, they needed to address the matter in seven days.
Do nothing, the letter said, and “the Association has the authority to ensure compliance.”
Stephens described the letter as “bullying.”
The HOA disputes that characterization, saying it’s doing exactly what it was formed to do: enforce community standards that make Alford Meadows a nice place to live.
The association’s attorney, Michael Krueger, said the letter wasn’t that different from others the association sends to people who violate community covenants. The HOA tried to address the issue in a meeting with the Stephenses, who walked out when he was told he couldn’t record the conversation. Not recording meetings is a “uniform policy,” of the HOA, Krueger said in an interview.
Krueger said he and the HOA are flummoxed about why this “relatively routine matter” has exploded.
“It’s a very minor dispute that frankly I don’t think anyone other than the owners know the reason for it becoming so big,” he said. “It’s not political. It’s not personal. It’s a board of directors that was following its processes — and that was prepared to discuss the matter.”
And while intelligent people can disagree on just how many decorative milk jugs crosses into distasteful territory, Krueger said the sign is definitely harmful to Stephens’s 387 neighbors, particularly anyone who’s trying to sell a house.
That’s why the HOA sent another letter to the Stephenses, telling them their protest sign needs to go.
“The Stephens, not the board, made a fairly routine disagreement into a spectacle that appears to be by both design and effect harmful to the neighborhood,” the HOA wrote in a letter to residents about the dispute.
But Stephens believes there’s more at play than a simple effort to enforce the rules.
In an interview with The Post, he used terms such as “personal vendetta” and “political retribution.”
He explained that he is an ardent supporter of President Trump. Many of his neighbors, he said, are not.
In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton won 48.1 percent of the vote in Colorado; Trump received 43.2 percent. Clinton also won Larimer County, which includes Loveland, 46.9 percent to 42 percent.
Before the election, Stephens said, people stole Trump signs from his yard and sent him hate mail.
“Dear d—–bags,” one letter began, according to Stephens. It continued: “Take your NEW YORK bigotry, hate-filled & mean-spirited ugliness back to the deplorable state that you came from. We don’t want you in our neighborhood.”
That ship has pretty much sailed, Stephens said.
He doesn’t plan to move, and he won’t take down the sign until the HOA apologizes and rescinds the violations.
He does, however, plan to discuss the story behind the sign with anyone who stops by for a chat — and, he says, will go to court if necessary.
Stephens said some of his neighbors have supported his battle against the HOA and others have asked him to take his sign down, including one neighbor who said it was hurting her efforts to sell her house. They talked for a few minutes one day, Stephens said, and “when she left she wished me good luck.”
Others have criticized Alford Meadows for sinking money from HOA dues into attorney fees to wage a battle over a few milk jugs and planters.
They just want the battle to stop, according to Stephens and the HOA, who both have received messages to that effect.
Krueger said that in taking the debate to the extreme, Richard Stephens has become the antagonist.
“This owner is doing what HOAs are derided for from coast to coast,” Krueger told The Post. “He’s making the neighborhood worse.”
James Laumann, the president of HOA-USA, which keeps a directory of HOAs and provides educational resources, said most people never have issues with their community associations; but problems crop up when buyers don’t do enough research before moving in.
“You are talking about typically the largest investment in someone’s life, which is their home,” Laumann said. “And many people buy into a community not really understanding the fact that there is an HOA and that there are restrictive covenants. And everything goes along fine until they realize I can’t do such and such. They say it’s their property, and think they can do what they want.”