By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Enter the gates of the Blue Bell Country Club, into a cluster of condos in Montgomery County and nothing seems to break the harmony of the landscape. Gray shingles cap every roof, and wrought-iron lanterns hang next to every front door.
Then comes Steve Blaustein’s house.
Here, the curtains required by the development are conspicuously absent, and passersby, strolling to the club’s tennis courts or cabana, can see piles of cardboard boxes filling the homeowner’s garage.
“It looks like a warehouse inside,” said Ed Gold, who lives down the street. “He signed the same document I did… . If you’re an individual and this isn’t for you, you don’t move here.”
Blaustein and his lawyer won’t discuss the issue, but his bare windows are the subject of a Montgomery County Court case that offers a glimpse into a conflict that is becoming more common nationwide.
The country club, like an increasing number of housing units being built in the United States, is managed and run by an elected board of homeowners that enforces a “covenant,” or rules and restrictions.
And as the developments mushroom, so do legal disputes between the boards and homeowners over those rules.
A Bucks County development sued a homeowner because his tenants’ children scribbled hopscotch squares on the sidewalk. A doghouse in the backyard set a Chester County homeowner on a legal collision course with his development’s elected board.
Debate over a homeowner’s right to park his Toyota pickup truck on streets inside Maryland Estates, a development in Missouri, made its way to the Court of Appeals there.
It took a bill in the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1998 to give condo owners – and anyone else – the clear right to fly the American flag.
State Rep. Robert Godshall (R., Montgomery) entered the fray after a Montgomery Township complex tried to force Gloria and Lee Tobak to move or cover the flag that hung inside their window as a memorial to Gloria’s father, a World War II veteran. The association cited its ban on window coverings that were not white, cream or tan.
And, in what could be a landmark case in Mercer County, N.J., the American Civil Liberties Union and several homeowners have joined in a suit protesting the association’s ban on political signs.
In 1970, only about 1 percent of Americans lived in condos and planned developments. Today, about 17 percent do, according to Robert H. Nelson, a public-affairs professor at the University of Maryland who is writing a book on such developments. He said that one in every two units built today is in a planned community, with the highest concentration in the Sun Belt.
And the pervasiveness of planned communities is now forcing courts to grapple with questions about how they are run, says Evan McKenzie, a political science professor at the University of Illinois and author of Privatopia, a book that characterizes the communities as mini-governments gone awry.
“Most of the time, associations have prevailed under the theory of contract,” McKenzie said. “Ultimately, judges say, ‘Look, a deal is a deal.’ But as the phenomenon gets more and more widespread, there’s a little more questioning of this.”
The head of the Community Associations Institute – a national lobbying group based in Alexandria, Va. – agrees.
“There’s starting to be some more sensitivity in thinking of the associations as more a community than a corporate entity,” said Dave Ramsey, the group’s president-elect and a lawyer in northern New Jersey.
“Welcome to Twin Rivers: A Private Community,” read the granite signs that border the first and largest planned community in New Jersey. Between the markers – along streets spread out alphabetically over 700 acres, with British-sounding names such as Avon, Canterbury and Covington – lie two elementary schools, a county library, a firehouse, a synagogue, an Olympic-sized swimming pool and several miniature parks.
With 10,000 residents, the development is larger than some surrounding towns. It has a monthly newspaper, called Twin Rivers Today. It collects trash and clears snow. Its homeowners pay a $100 monthly fee for those services and others.
In court documents filed in Mercer County Court in 2000, five dissident homeowners used those details to argue that Twin Rivers acts like a local government and, as such, should end practices and rules that conflict with constitutional guarantees.
“It’s a fantastic setting for a dictatorship,” said Bruce Fritzges, a townhouse owner at the development and a plaintiff in the ACLU suit against the nine-member elected board.
He and the others are challenging rules barring them from posting political signs beyond a three-foot radius of their houses.
They also claim the rules of open government, including access to financial documents, should apply to the board’s meetings.
Fritzges and his wife, Terry, Twin Rivers residents since 1973, can’t vote. For the last two years, they haven’t paid the $3 of their monthly maintenance fee charged for cable TV, because they don’t subscribe to the service.
The association is “trying to insinuate themselves into people’s homes,” said Terry Fritzges. “Heaven forbid you should have a holiday wreath on your door past a certain date.”
Robert J. Hudak, a vice president of the board, characterizes the plaintiffs as troublemakers who have cost the community $300,000 in legal fees. “Obviously this is America, and we live and die by democracy,” he said. “However, this… is not a town. It is a homeowner’s association.”
“Nobody wants to live next door to someone who might paint their front door shocking pink,” Hudak said. “That’s the contract. When you buy into one of these communities, you’re signing off on that.”
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