It started with a fresh coat of paint to an old gate. Now, after two years of battling his homeowners' association over the color he chose - off-white to match his house - Armando Lazarte says he is ready to pack up and move out.
"They just won't leave us alone," the retired computer analyst says. "It's like we don't even have rights over our own home."
Mr. Lazarte's frustration with his homeowners' association is not unusual in a nation where some 42 million people live under association rules. And with more doing so every day, Americans are increasingly jumping the fence of civility.
Along with the promise to maintain property values and keep neighborhoods tidy, homeowners' associations also control the minutiae of daily existence - right down to where you put your petunia patch.
But heavy-handed rules and arbitrary enforcement are sometimes blamed for pitting neighbor against neighbor, and turning serene subdivisions into raucous battle zones. The result may be a budding national backlash. "Common-interest developments are really starting to cause consumer resentment," says Frederick Pilot, president of the Common Interest Consumer Project in Sacramento, Calif.
Lawmakers seem to be listening. This spring, Texas passed a law requiring associations to hold their board meetings in public. They also tightened due-process procedures for legal actions against homeowners. Other rapidly growing Sunbelt states, such as Nevada, are cracking down on association excesses.
Elsewhere, the role of the groups is undergoing a thorough reevaluation. With roots in 19th-century Boston, these quasi-democratic bodies - also called residential community associations or common-interest developments - now number more than 200,000 across the country.
Typically installed by developers, they provide amenities ranging from recreation centers to trash pickup. Under their tutelage, parks are established, pools maintained, and architectural consistency imposed - all financed by fees. Rules are set through deed restrictions, and overseen by boards of directors comprised of residents and developer representatives.
But critics believe associations wield too much power. Mr. Pilot cites a growing number of complaints on his radio talk show. "Mostly we hear about boards making decisions in secret and not soliciting member input when they make decisions," he says.
Those mandates often include big fines for tiny infractions such as planting the wrong type of shrubs, leaving a garage door open, or even erecting a flagpole. Failure to pay up can mean a lien against a home, or even foreclosure.
Reforms are long overdue, says Evan McKenzie, a University of Chicago researcher and author of a book critical of many association practices and some lawyers connected with them.
Still, Mr. McKenzie is optimistic that both associations and the legal community see a need for change. "They realize that it comes down to giving these communities a chance to become communities," he says.
Among those now trumpeting reform is the Community Associations Institute, a Washington-based trade group for association managers, lawyers, and homeowners. Spokeswoman Donna Reichle says the group is now emphasizes enhancing harmony within associations. In fact, the topic was recently discussed at a national conference. "We're directing more of our energy toward building communities, and away from nit-picking and rigid enforcement of rules," she says.
Wayne Hyatt, an Atlanta attorney considered a leader in association law, says his profession is also undergoing change. "There's been too much focus on restrictions, and not enough on the people who live in these communities," he says. "It's time for association lawyers to get away from business as usual."
For Tucson homeowner Shirley Curtis, shifting attitudes have already taken hold. Frustrated with her association's habit of raising dues and dispatching spies to sniff out the slightest infractions, Ms. Curtis was among a cadre of angry neighbors who picketed the association. The tactic met with limited success and plenty of acrimony, but four years later, her subdivision is more peaceful. "I think people are at least trying to work things out," she says.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society