Big Brother in the 'Burbs


I live in a 3-year-old subdivision governed by a homeowners association. The association bylaws, among other restrictions, forbid people from erecting tool sheds on their properties and from cutting down hardwood trees. The rules were meant to retain a neat, orderly look for the community. My neighbor, however, has an aluminum shed the size of a small barn, and as I write this, she's feverishly cutting down most of her live trees.

Crash! There goes the dogwood.

People talk about having less faith in the three levels of government -- federal, state and local. But my experiences have soured me on the emerging fourth level of government: The homeowners association.

It's hard to find a development built without one nowadays. There are 150,000 homeowners associations nationally, triple the number of 12 years ago, that oversee condo, co-op, townhouse and detached-home communities. Maryland has 8,000 of them. Because they are so prevalent, particularly in developments sprouting up in the outer suburbs, many people are buying into them despite their opposition to the concept of community controls. They really have no business living in them.

The national Community Associations Institute refers to homeowners associations as democracies in miniature, but they're a level of government that generally lacks scrutiny by the press and any enforcement powers to speak of.

When the president of the association at my former residence persuaded a majority of the board to award him the community lawn-mowing contract, there were no media to exert pressure against such abuse. As for my tree-killing neighbor, the trees are already down and the volunteer homeowners board lacks the reserves or the resolve to initiate legal action.

In theory, homeowners groups work like this: Property owners pay mandatory dues or a tax to an association. They elect volunteers to a board of directors and often appoint an architectural-review board as well. The association is charged with ensuring that the grass gets cut in common areas and that snow gets plowed. Its most controversial duty, though, is seeing that property owners don't make changes to their exterior or landscaping of their homes that could mar the look of the community.

Many people rail at being told what they can do on their blessed postage-stamp parcel of God's green (decreasingly so) earth. But more than ever, what they do impacts their neighbor. People used to live in the city or the country. Now most of the nation lives in the suburbs. It's not "sub-rural," but "sub-urban," because the housing patterns are relatively dense. Because of the sharp rise in land costs outside the cities and a movement to reserve "open space" in new subdivisions, detached homes aren't so detached anymore. People live even more closely in condos and townhouses.

The homeowners association concept isn't new. Baltimore's Roland Park, laid out 101 years ago, is credited as the country's first suburban homeowners association with protective covenants, according to the Community Associations Institute. Roland Park's wooded pathways were copied in the planning of modern covenanted communities such as Columbia in Howard County and Reston, Virginia.

Columbia, designed by noted urban planner James Rouse 25 years ago, is to your typical homeowners association what Broadway is to community theater. Appeals for exterior home changes there are listed in a regular newsletter, including a schedule of hearings at which neighbors can object. (Smaller, less sophisticated associations, such as mine, rely on the tenuous neighborhood grapevine, or the buzz of a chain saw, to spread news of covenant exemptions.)

One co-worker who lives in Columbia told of collecting neighbors' signatures just so he could install a screen door. Another friend told of having his doghouse torched (without the dog in it), presumably by a fellow Columbian aggrieved because the doghouse was an illegal use.

Is this going too far? Well, doghouse arson could get out of hand, but Big Brotherism isn't all bad. People living in covenanted communities must play by the rules. Although Maryland law requires that home buyers be given copies of covenants and restrictions before they are bound to a home purchase, too often the restrictions are buried in a mound of other documents, are soft-pedaled by real-estate agents loath to scare off a potential sale, or are signed, then ignored by people who assume bylaws aren't true laws.

The trend toward homeowner associations, protective covenants and clustered housing patterns should dictate the following realization to home buyers who want to throw up satellite dishes and sheds and other junk where they're not allowed: If you want country living, move to the country.

Andrew Ratner writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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