Many housing developments have homeowners associations (HOA) that impose strict rules and regulations. While some of the stipulations seem silly, abiding by them is a necessity for those who wish to live within these groups' bounds. A Fairfax, Va., family learned this lesson after they posted a yard sign in support of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential run and the board ruled that it violated HOA standards. What resulted was an epic legal battle between the Farran family and the housing authority -- one that inevitably led the board to bankruptcy, splintering the community and creating ongoing division among its residents.
While there is certainly no ban on the placement of political signs at Olde Belhaven, the development at the center of the debate, the placard that was posted by Sam and Maria Farran was four inches taller than allowed by the rules and regulations. When the board approached the family in the heat of the highly-contentious election season and told them to remove the Obama sign, the Farrans decided to simply cut the placard in half, with one side reading "OBA" and the other reading "MA."
The couple knew that their signs were too large, but they felt that the attack was, more than anything else, an assault on free speech. As they doubled-down with their sign-cutting prank, the board, too, geared up for a fight. After passing a rule that residents in violation of HOA policies could be fined up to $900.00, the situation intensified.
Photo Credit: Flickr/animantis
The Farrans believed that the fining action was illegal, however HOA leaders held that they were entirely within their bounds to take such action against the family. After the fine was levied and the board subsequently rejected the family's proposed deck and roof projects, Sam and Marcia decided to take action. They sued, arguing that the fines were not legal and that the projects they proposed were rejected out of retaliation over the Obama sign debacle.
"It’s like we weren’t living in America,” Maria told the Washington Post. "You are always one board election away from a tyranny. They wield enormous power."
The Post has more about the legal battle's ongoing impact on the community:
The legal fight consumed Olde Belhaven.
The Farrans said HOA backers told them to move. They found bullets in their yard. Someone implored a priest at their church to prevail on the Farrans to stop the lawsuit. A local real estate agent said the infighting was scaring off some home buyers.
“It was a crusade,” a supporter of the Farrans said.
On the other side, board members said that the Farrans were unreasonable and that they declined numerous offers to begin settlement discussions. And as the case ground on, the HOA increased dues from $650 a year to about $3,500, mostly to cover legal fees.
The board’s former president, Jim LeBlanc, said the situation put a strain on some elderly residents living on fixed incomes. “Some had their health impacted,” LeBlanc said. “There’s a sense of, what is it going to take to resolve this? This was a tragic nightmare.”
Of course, there are two sides to every story. Just as the HOA claims to made attempts to settle, so do the Farrans. Both sides clearly believed that they were in the right, though, leaving little room for negotiation and agreement. The stalemate brought the entire community into the ugly battle -- one that has financially-ruined the HOA.
In 2010, the Farrans won their case surrounding the fines and in 2011, a judge ruled that the decision to reject the deck and roof was improper, because the determination was made at a closed meeting that didn't follow protocol. In the end, the HOA was forced to pay the Farrans' legal fees as well as hundreds of thousands of their own court costs. To settle these debts and stay afloat, the HOA has been forced to put the community square, land where residents would gather to celebrate holidays and have picnics, up for sale.
Currently, the sale of this land is up in the air and the board is in bankruptcy. Residents hope that a sense of community will return, but, for now, the debate that was sparked over an Obama yard sign has left Olde Belhaven fractured.
(H/T: The Atlantic)