By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
Meagan Regina and Matt Iannone, a young millennial couple, were married in 2013, in Philadelphia. Matt is an engineer for the U.S. Navy, Meagan works for a non-profit community organization.
Their love of historic homes and a waterfront setting drew the couple to Queen Village, where they spent many weekends searching for just the right home that would be spacious enough to start a family.
In August 2016, in a highly competitive Queen Village market, the couple purchased their dream home at 770 South Front Street: A classic brick 3-story federal style townhome originally constructed in 1744, with an addition added in the 1960s. The addition includes the home’s kitchen and dining room on the second floor, with bedroom space on the third floor.
The couple’s home is one of 15 governed by a small homeowners’ association, Clymer Court HOA. Behind Meagan and Matt’s home, not visible from Front Street, stand 14 attached townhomes built in 1969-1970, and a quaint common courtyard that is owned and maintained by the HOA.
To provide access to the 14 townhomes nestled behind 770 S. Front Street, the Iannone’s addition’s ground level is designed as a brick archway.
Each home in Clymer Court is individually owned and maintained. Matt and Meagan’s home is not physically connected to any of the other 14 homes, and is even supplied by a separate water main. HOA assessments are currently $135 per month, which covers water utility, trash removal, maintenance of the common patio, courtyard, and an iron gate that separates the rear archway of the Front Street home from the foot path leading to 14 townhomes.
The HOA is governed by 4 members, including board President Ellen O’Hara and her husband Doug Goldberg who serves as Treasurer.
Within days of closing on the sale of their home, while removing some old wallpaper in the home’s addition, Meagan and Matt noticed some unusually loud noises and vibrations.
The mysterious noise sounded like a blaring beeping, followed by an electronic buzz and finally a loud banging. The floors shook when they heard the banging. Then it stopped. But a few minutes later, they heard more buzzing and banging, vibrating the floor beneath their feet. The disturbance repeated every few minutes. The young homeowners wondered, “what could it be?”
After a bit of investigation outside, Meagan and Matt discovered the source of the loud noises: a call box and the heavy, mechanically operated iron gate located in the archway, directly beneath their dining room floor.
Because the gated entry is the only way in and out for residents of 14 townhomes, the gate opens and closes at all hours of the day and night.
According to the homeowners, who have monitored the frequency of the disturbance, the gate is used an average of 150 times per day. Clearly, something must be done to stop the noise and vibrations.
The gate is common property of Clymer Court HOA, so the young couple promptly contacted HOA President, Ellen O’Hara. The new homeowners explained the situation with the loud noises and vibration, expecting that a bit of maintenance and mechanical adjustment would eliminate the disturbance.
The HOA property manager Property Management Group (PMG) was assigned to investigate the problem. A few days later, a contractor from Crown Doors Company showed up, inspected the gate, took some notes, and reported back to the manager. The cause of the vibration and noise, according to the inspector, is the fact that the heavy iron gate is anchored from above, attaching into the brick archway located just below the floor of Meagan and Matt’s dining room. When the gate operates, vibrations and noise travel all the way up into the 3rd floor bedroom. The Crown Doors contractor initially estimated that repair work would cost in excess of $500.
But as soon as the HOA President received the cost estimate, O’Hara was uninterested in fixing the problem. Meagan and Matt were informed that, because they were the only residents of Clymer Court complaining about the noise, they would have to pay to fix the problem themselves. Additionally, the HOA would first need to review and approve any plans to modify the gate or the archway.
The homeowners were stunned at the unexpected response.
Matt and Meagan maintain that their HOA governing documents clearly state that the iron gate is HOA property. Besides, since they enter their home through the door on Front street, they never need to use the gate, except on rare occasion, to move packages into the back door.
Though the gate is technically attached to Matt and Meagan’s home, beginning in the 1960s, the HOA was granted an easement to use and maintain the ground floor area beneath the archway. The gate itself was added by the HOA at a later date.
In the weeks and months that followed, Matt and Meagan attempted to meet with the HOA Board and property manager to work out a friendly compromise, but the HOA board declined the opportunity to discuss the matter further and reaffirmed that they would not agree to share the cost as a common expense.
Determined to resolve the issue, in the fall of 2016, the couple obtained bids from 3 licensed contractors. These bids were rejected by the HOA. HOA attorney, Daniel B. Markind, insisted that the cost to modify the gate should be the sole responsibility of the Meagan and Matt. He also informed the young couple that the HOA would sue them if they tried to modify or remove the gate on their own to achieve peace and quiet.
In December 2016 the HOA Board stated they wanted to get their own bids. The board continued to downplay the noise from the gate, even after several members visited the home in December 2016 to hear the noise for themselves. The HOA later rejected all modification proposals, expressing disapproval for detaching the gate from the arch, and doubt that the Philadelphia Historical Commission (PHC) would approve the architectural changes.
Shortly after this time, Meagan requested and received from PHC a general approval for the nature of the work being sought, since the resulting new gate design would look highly similar to the existing gate.
In January 2017, after months of reaching out to the Health Department about how to handle the issue, Philadelphia Air Management Services (AMS) visited the house to measure the noise levels inside their home each time the callbox was activated and the gate was opened and closed.
Sure enough, AMS reported that noise levels exceeded Philadelphia Noise Code.
According to Meagan, “The noise from the gate and the call box is 5-8 times the permissible decibel level on both the 2nd and 3rd floors of our house. AMS was prepared to issue violations, until they found out we were all part of the same HOA who owned the gate. It is deceiving because our house is notably separated from the rest of the community. At that point AMS told us we were on our own and had to work it out in house with the HOA.”
A copy of the noise code notice, basically a warning letter, was mailed from AMS to the HOA in February 2017.
At the same time, Matt and Meagan decided to seek counsel to represent their interests. Initially, they were able to get some assistance from a family friend who issued a letter, along with a copy of the AMS violations, insisting on an immediate repair.
It’s important to note that, for nearly a year, Meagan and Matt never officially moved into the property, as they held out hope that the noise issue would be resolved.
They couldn’t imagine listening to the noise 24×7.
“From Aug 2016-July 2017, we did not sleep in the house and instead lived with my mother in NJ, praying this would get resolved so we could move into a peaceful house,” says Meagan. “Eventually we realized we could no longer afford the 2-hour daily commute to work and had to move in.”
After receipt of the attorney’s letter and the AMS warning, the HOA directed the manager to reduce the intercom volume, but offered no effective action to stop the noise and vibration caused by the opening and closing of the gate.
Matt and Meagan requested a second visit from AMS in April 2017, which again found noise levels to exceed City Noise Code.
Matt and Meagan’s attorney mailed to the Clymer Court HOA board a copy of the new AMS report, along with copies of 3 proposals for modifications to the gate, intended to resolve the noise issues.
The HOA refused to address the new noise violations, but stated that they would have a reasonable resolution prepared for the upcoming annual HOA meeting in June 2017. At that meeting the HOA merely proposed conducting their own noise tests in the presence of AMS, a proposal that would require board members to enter the Iannone’s home to conduct yet another round of tests.
Matt sent an email after he board meeting, expressing disappointment that the HOA only wanted to pursue more testing, after having been provided with multiple quotes, warnings of city noise violations, and documented proof that the gate is the HOA’s responsibility to maintain. He requested the HOA consider one of the more moderate fixes, quoted at under $1500, which might potentially put the entire issue to rest.
The HOA’s attorney, Daniel Markind, responded to Matt’s email, rejecting the proposal, once again insisting upon a third noise evaluation by AMS, in the presence of the HOA board and himself. The homeowners denied the HOA board’s request to be present for any inspections by AMS, because they already had an outstanding and unaddressed notice of violation in hand, and the presence of HOA members within their home would serve no practical or legal purpose.
Around the same time, the Iannone’s acquired a bid proposal that they believe would address all parties concerned. For a quote of $4825, a contractor proposes that the gate be detached from the archway, then reattached to sturdy gate posts set in the ground beneath the brick arch.
According to the proposal, the existing gate would be modified to fit neatly inside the arch, leaving a 1 inch gap between the gate posts and the brick in the archway. Privacy and secure access would be maintained, and noise and vibrations would be alleviated. Despite the HOA board’s doubts, the modification request was also formally approved by the Philadelphia Historical Commission (PHC).
Even if the HOA lacks reserves to pay for the gate modification, the cost divided by 15 units would be approximately $267. Not exactly a fortune, especially for owners who can afford to live in pricey Queen Village.
The HOA board has rejected this proposal, and all the others.
For more than six months, Meagan had pleaded with AMS to move forward on enforcing its City noise restrictions, rather than simply issuing warning letters to Clymer Court HOA.
In August 2017, AMS conducted a third noise assessment, and, once again, found noise levels which failed to comply with City Noise Codes. This time, AMS finally issued formal violations against the HOA.
After several additional months with no satisfactory action taken by the board, Meagan Regina and Matt Iannone filed suit against Clymer Court HOA in November 2017.
Attorney Ian Gallo of Gallo Hildebrand, LLP, Ardmore, PA, represents the Plaintiffs.
The couple seeks as damages, reimbursement of their mortgage payments and HOA assessments for 11 months they did not reside in the home, as well as mileage expenses incurred while the couple lived with Meagan’s mother in New Jersey.
Those are the tangible damages.
After 18 months of fighting with the HOA board over an issue that could have been resolved quickly and easily, the homeowners are no closer to finding peace in their home.
Meagan and Matt report that their neighbors won’t even say “hello” or make eye contact with them.
The young couple has endured months of two-hour commutes, and countless hours trying to convince the HOA board to work with them to modify the gated entry so they can live peacefully in their own home.
Since the homeowners have moved back into the home, frequent noise disturbances, sleepless nights, and difficult relations with their neighbors at Clymer Court have also taken a toll, especially on Meagan. She has been treated by her physician for stress-related illness. Plans to start a family have been put on hold, pending a resolution of the dispute.