By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
(Note to subscribers: reposting due to spam attack of original link)
Rarely does a week go by that we don’t hear about a Fair Housing complaint filed against an HOA-governed community.
The latest buzz involves a family in Sarasota, Florida. Mike and Michelle Morley, parents of Mason, a 9-year-old autistic boy, ran into trouble with the Harbour Walk HOA after they installed a back yard fence.
Mike Morley, a retired Gulf War Veteran, explains that Mason was born in Russia, to a mother who abused drugs. He and his wife adopted the boy as an infant. They recently moved from California to Florida, purchasing a home in Harbour Walk.
The Morleys say that Mason’s doctors recommended an un-climbable fence to help prevent the boy from wandering off into nearby preserves or canals. Scientific studies confirm that children with autism spectrum disorder have a tendency to suddenly wander away from home and parents, exposing them to unsafe situations.
The problem, as usual, is that their HOA-governed community restricts the type and size of fencing allowed. And, as is typical in HOA-ville, homeowners are required to obtain written approval before making any exterior improvements to their property. That includes getting permission before installing a fence.
The Morleys admit that they installed their fence without consulting Harbour Walk HOA.
HOA says family can’t keep the fence
When approached about the violation, according to a report in the Sarasota Herald Tribune, Mike at first said he needed the fence for his dog. That didn’t convince the HOA to make an exception to their fence restrictions.
That’s when Mike told the HOA about his son’s disability, and the real reason they need a secure fence.
Nevertheless, Harbour Walk HOA told the Morleys their fence is against the rules, therefore it must come down. And they’ve fined the family $100 per day for the past two months, filing a lien against their home, with the threat of HOA foreclosure.
That prompted Mike Morley to file a fair housing complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Harbour Walk HOA is represented by their attorney Michael Prohidney. Attorney Lori Dorman is assisting the Morleys.
HOA rules for fence installation
HOA rules express a preference for an iron rail fence, four feet high, and no longer than 12 feet.
Although it might be an attractive option, a short rail fence won’t prevent an active boy like Mason from climbing over the top. And the 12-foot length won’t contain enough safe space in the Morley’s yard.
But, that’s the nature of most HOA Rules of Appearance, isn’t it?
It’s all about creating a certain image for the “community.” It’s not about functionality or common sense.
Most HOA rule makers — usually a real estate developer, sometimes an over zealous HOA board — don’t really care if residents can make the best use of space on their own property.
Misguided HOA boards are sometimes more concerned with setting arbitrary standards for the “character” of the neighborhood. The rules are based upon a vague notion of what looks attractive and prestigious.
The stated goal of an HOA, according to the industry trade group, is to maximize property values by “staging” the community as if it were a collection of model homes appearing on HGTV.
After all, at a moment’s notice, any potential home buyer should be captivated by manicured lawns and beautiful landscape details. Therefore, every property in the association-governed, common interest community must be “ready to show.” Surely, that will entice buyers to fall in love and offer top dollar to home sellers.
Of course, real people don’t live their every day lives in anticipation of selling their homes. But that’s not the point for the small but influential group of HOA fanatics in America.
HOA power play?
Many of the Fair Housing disputes that make national news come down to one thing: the HOA gets miffed when the resident doesn’t ask their permission to accommodate a disabled household member.
It’s really about the power of HOA boards over the entire community. All too often, one or more board members get drunk on that power.
To be fair, sometimes a homeowner or resident assumes that the Fair Housing Acts give them the absolute right to do whatever seems necessary to make their lives safer and easier.
But, the unfortunate truth is, housing consumers have no absolute rights.
Instead, in spite of the Fair Housing Acts, HOAs have an absolute legal right to require permission from homeowners before they make any visible modifications to their property.
Theoretically, your HOA is supposed to follow state and federal laws, and make “reasonable accommodations” for a resident’s disability.
But, quite often, an HOA and its residents don’t see eye to eye on what’s “reasonable.” The HOA board tends to react with knee-jerk impulses. The board may try to find reasons to deny a request for an exception, in favor of following their sacred (usually arbitrary) HOA rules.
And, sometimes, even when a homeowners goes through the time-consuming process of asking for the HOA’s approval, the HOA won’t grant the accommodation they need.
Such was the case back in 2015, when Shawn and Kristin Seekings battled their HOA in the Espirit community over a 6-foot vinyl fence for their then 5-year-old disabled son.
After significant media publicity, however, the HOA relented. They allowed the family to put up a vinyl fence to keep their son safe from wandering into the nearby, swampy conservation zone.
After following Fair Housing HOA disputes for several years, there’s no telling how this story will end.
Maybe Harbour Walk HOA will work with the Morleys and allow them to keep their fence.
Or maybe the HOA will make multiple requests for more information, attempting to force the family to take down the current fence. They could grant approval for the Morley’s to put up some more costly fencing that the current board deems to be more attractive.
The HOA might even look for various reasons to deny that Mason has a disability.
Or, if they do acknowledge the boy’s neurological disorder, the HOA might try to argue that the family can “make do” with a shorter length of fence, and a much smaller secured outdoor space.
In short, this Fair Housing legal dispute could end next week, or it could drag on for many years.
Hopefully, Harbour Walk won’t needlessly rack up millions in legal fees for the HOA, then settle out of court under a confidential settlement. (See Chicago condo owner’s long-running Fair Housing case settled.)
And for Mason’s sake, let’s hope this dispute over a back yard fence is resolved quickly, allowing a 9-year boy old to enjoy his childhood, while he still can. ♦
Bradenton family battles Harbour Walk HOA
By Chris Anderson, Sarasota Herald Tribune | August 19, 2019
Family battles homeowners association over fence for son with Asperger’s syndrome
WKMG6 | Posted: 11:37 PM, June 04, 2015Updated: 11:37 PM, June 04, 2015