Houses of Horror
The Miami Herald, Oct. 2002
By Jasmine Kripalani
In her silver Lexus, Mary Haslam patrols The Lakes in Weston, on the lookout for dirty mailboxes, mildewed houses and larger-than-approved For Sale signs. She points to the browning dead hedges on a house on Cameron Court and says, "Bingo!"
Aided by her sidekick and neighbor Kathy Astley, Haslam is a volunteer foot soldier, one of five, in the fight against residential rule-breaking. By day, the five hold such jobs as Realtor and high school principal. By night, they roam the neighborhood in search of homeowner association rule violations, which carry fines as high as $100 a day for up to 10 days.
Their forays into the winding roads and cul-de-sacs of Weston underscore a fundamental truth of suburban life: Homeowners like rigorous enforcement of high standards -- when applied to the other guy. But people are not particularly fond of being told to trim their own hedges or mow their own yard.
Consider the crude two-word expletive that was spray-painted onto Haslam's driveway not long ago by somebody who didn't bother to sign his or her handiwork. It's the calling card of an irate citation recipient, Haslam reckons, although she cannot prove it. It has been whited out, but the outline of the expletive is still visible.
Haslam and her colleagues soldier on. There is plenty to look out for, even in a neighborhood as lovely as The Lakes, a community divided into five neighborhoods with one representative from each serving in an enforcement role. They sometimes call on other homeowners to join in. Haslam, who covers Cameron Lake, said she never rides alone.
The five are guided by a 40-page covenant. They don't actually issue citations but provide a list of problems to the management company, which mails out the notices.
Anyone who challenges a violation must appear before an enforcement board made up of Haslam -- a high school guidance counselor -- and her four colleagues.
Under the community covenant, refusing to wipe a dust-coated mailbox violates the code, as does failing to keep your hedges green. Other violations include leaving garbage cans on the curb overnight, forgetting to roll your portable basketball stand into the garage overnight, or having visitors park their cars on the street overnight.
To date, about 220 of the Lakes 569 homeowners in the Weston subdivision have broken the rules at least once. Not surprising when you consider Article VII, Section 5, with a beginning paragraph that has great sweep:
"Nothing shall be done or maintained on any lot that may be or become an annoyance or nuisance to the occupants of other lots."
Ivette Hutchinson, the enforcer for the 241-home Somerset Lake neighborhood, says she has heard her share of excuses after she checks up on residents who have failed to pressure-clean their sidewalks or roofs.
"I hear, 'But my grandmother died.' Or, 'My husband isn't working,' " Hutchinson said, shaking her head. "No, this is a contract. You are breaching a contract. We don't want to be nasty, but some people would rather pay the fine than fix the problem." It may seem harsh, but Hutchinson says the vigilance pays off for everybody in the long run.
Property values have more than doubled since the first person bought a home in the 10-year-old community off Indian Trace and Lake Boulevard. Many communities in Weston have similar restrictions, but not all are enforced as rigorously.
Hutchinson bought her two-story home in 1993 at $124,000. She said it's now worth about $315,000. It's a community where landscaping is lush, the crime rate is low, and homeowners use the word ''pristine'' to describe it.
Astley is a principal at Flamingo Elementary School in Hialeah, but once a month she drives or walks through the neighborhood with Haslam, looking for trees that need trimming and cars parked on the street overnight.
"I moved to Weston because I came from a community that didn't do this. From parties to painting their homes purple to leaving trash on the street, it was unsightly," Astley said. "I was happy to move to Weston, where they have rules and order. I have a rules-and-order mind-set. I'm surprised homeowners aren't appreciative that property values have gone up."
For the enforcers, no detail is too small. If Halloween decorations are up this time next month, residents will have two weeks to take them down. "We don't go out on the 14th day," Haslam said. "We'll wait till the 15th or 16th day. . . . Most things can be done in five minutes."
By the end of last January, some homeowners still had Christmas lights up. "We cited them," Haslam said. "Is that harassment? No, that's the rules."
On a recent afternoon, Haslam spotted a green pastel picket fence that had splotchy, yellow-green mildew stains. "We might let it go one more month," Haslam said. "By the end of November, if it really shows a lot more, we'll cite them." Not everyone is a fan of this vigilant approach.
Richard Bliss, 49, and his family moved in to a five-bedroom house in April 1993. During that time, Bliss has received nearly 20 letters or citations. They remind him to pressure-clean his sidewalks and roof. He always gets it done before he's fined. Each homeowner pays $65 a month in association fees. "We pay for them to do this to us," Bliss said.
His neighbor, Jim Mayhugh, accused the board of keeping common sense out of the equation. Mayhugh's 19-year-old daughter, who was home from college, made the mistake of parking her black 2002 Ford pickup truck on the driveway. Not allowed. Article VII, Section 12 prohibits pickup trucks. "The prohibition on parking contained in this section shall not apply to temporary parking of trucks," the document reads.
The homeowner association defines temporary not as a few days, but a few hours, as in from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. or dawn to dusk. "It's aggravating," Mayhugh said.
Mayhugh is leading a team of residents seeking to oust the current board of directors. "In order to change any of the rules, it's damn near impossible. You're stuck. You can never find everyone in this community," he said of the rule that requires a two-thirds vote to change them.
Chris Malter supports Mayhugh and said that he asked someone at the subdivision's management company if he could leave anything outside -- even his kid's baseball glove.
"They truly do not represent the needs and wants of this community. That's when you have a problem,'' Malter said.
Haslam, however, said she would never issue a citation if a child left behind a baseball glove in a front yard. "I try to be compassionate, understanding," Haslam said. "We're not saying do it today. Just let us know you're doing something about it. We're reasonable. We're very reasonable."
Houses of Horror