Monday, April 7, 2008

I am officially a "Surburbanite"

It's happened. I am a Suburbanite. How so? I crafted a letter to my quasi-fascist Home Owner's Association.

The HOA is trying to make what is called the Architectural Compliance (ACCC) even more authoritative by giving it the power to "automatically" levy fines (without the normal protocol of due process).

See what I wrote:

I want to thank everyone for participating in the discussion on the ACCC. It's interesting that I received so many pro-ACCC responses, and not one response that at least questioned the breadth of the authority given to the ACCC, let alone giving it even more, according to the proposed by-laws.

Let me make something explicitly clear: I don't mean to suggest that I am absolutely against the ACCC. However, after listening to some of my neighbors' experiences with the ACCC, and reading the proposed changes to the By-Laws, I am now VERY concerned as to where the ACCC (and perhaps the community at large) is heading.

I was told to check out surrounding communities to get a better idea as to why the ACCC is needed. So I did. I was told that I was going to "love the ACCC" after seeing Maryland City up close, as well as Adelphi, Langley Park, and some parts of Beltsville. What I saw were fine neighborhoods. There wasn't anything unusual about these homes. Most were normal, working-class ramblers that have sustained middle-class families for two generations. A few added elements to their homes which would not be Kosher in Montpelier, but overall I saw nothing wrong with it. I will not be swayed by this argument, which - to me - sounds a bit classist. Yes, the homes are much more humbly sized when compared to Montpelier's assortment of Colonials, but the communities as a whole are just fine (in that there isn't anything out of the ordinary).

Of course, and not surprisingly, many wondered about what would happen if a neighbor paints her house a gaudy shade of purple or pink, or if someone were to begin investing in chicken farming out of his backyard, and a slew of other largely Chicken Little scenarios. Yes, it is a possibility that someone would paint a house a strange color. Yes, it is possible that someone would pave over more yard than you may prefer. But really: how often does this happen, and how long does it really last? Yes, I was told about the purple house somewhere in our neighborhood (what, 30 years ago?), yet admitted that this was promptly re-painted; interestingly, there wasn't evidence of the ACCC being the executor of this action (perhaps it was shame?). No self-respecting real estate economist (not agent, mind you) would tell you that temporary changes to a home would lead to precipitous drops in home values. At the very worst, in a down market, potential buyers might think otherwise of buying your home when your neighbor paints his house pink, but - again - in a down market you have a lot of other things to worry about other than the temporary nature of your neighbor's choice of color.

One response dealt with the notion of ACCC offering "quality control" of the community. Frankly, quality control should have been applied by the MCA, in general, after the homes were built: insane drainage issues, irrational design of for air circulation, and the nuttiness of first-floor ducting should have been huge red flags when these homes were presented. But that's before my time, and - who knows - maybe Levitt Homes was taken to court.

All of this goes back to my initial comment: it's not that I am against general guidelines, or even rules. It's the micro-managerial way the ACCC oversees its mandate. A response stated that guidelines are a good thing, and I agree. But I ask you, do we want micro-managerial By-Laws. Please read this proposed By-Law (Article X, Section 5: Automatic Fines): "The ACCC shall have the power to automatically levy fines...(b)if there is a complaint from a Member regarding an uncut lawn, [and] (c) If a Member is cited for parking on the grass." Can we not agree that the wording here is very troublesome? What, pray tell, is an "uncut lawn." One week's growth? Two? Six inches? And how soon "after notifying a Member" will these fines accrue? A day? A second? What's worse is the entire notion of how this proposed By-Law is the EXACT ANTITHESIS of the word "community." Not only are we encouraged to spy on neighbors, but I would get a fine because an unknown neighbor thought my front lawn was a bit too shaggy for his or her taste. What made me laugh about this particular proposed By-Law was at how closely it resembles Neighborhood Watch Groups in Havana.

General guidelines are a good thing, but when guidelines become incredibly precise rules (no six-foot fences in my back yard? Why not?), then these lead to confusion and distrust. I have spoken to more than one neighbor who had an adjacent neighbor get a six foot fence without a problem from the ACCC, yet when he or she tried to get one, the ACCC denied the request; the ACCC relented only after much back and forth which left the neighbor angry, suspicious and distrusting of the ACCC. This leads to my most disheartening comment. I was told that all individuals, "regardless of age or gender or ethnic group or disability" must abide by the regulations. That goes without saying, but from what I have heard first-hand, the ACCC executes its authority in a less-than-egalitarian way. Are people of color receiving a disproportionately difficult time in having plans approved, or have them denied outright while others do not have the same problem? That is an incredibly contentious charge, and one I would like to research further.

Clearly, I chose to live in this community. Did I know what I was getting into? Clearly not, and I don't think that that's unusual. I am not content with the notion that the ACCC will be even more powerful than before. This does not bode well for the community. Do you want an active ACCC? Then I suggest we vote NO on the proposed By-Law changes which make the ACCC more authoritative, yet vaguely so. If I am going to get a fine for the length of my lawn, then I want the ACCC to tell me what the maximum height is, and show me by how much I exceeded it with a photo of the volunteer measuring it. This is what I mean by an active ACCC: if they want to micro-manage, let them do so by precisely written rules.

Finally, one person told me that the eradication of the ACCC would mean "free reign of the property." Quite ironic, I thought. I grew up in a largely white, middle-class development (sans HOA) in Rockville. Over the years, it has grown in size, and many Southeast Asian communities have moved in, along with huge amounts of Latinos and African-Americans. What I don't see are chicken coops, paved-over front lawns, gazebos by the driveway, large ("gaudy") images of the Virgin Mary, and other elements that would make the ACCC gasp for air.




Allum Barstansangur said...

These petty rule-makers and their ilk are nothing but bad news for a community.

They are quite possibly one of the top 10 best examples of the old adage

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions"

Picture if you will, a badge-wearing, sub-mall security guard level intellect armed with a clipboard and a depth gauge measuring the uniformity of your lawn.

"I'm sorry sir, we have levied a $500 fine in accordance with paragraph B, subsection ii of the homeowners manual as your lawn is precisely one centimetre longer than the regulation amount."

It becomes a way for petty grievances to be aired and attacks on disliked neighbours will come by proxy of the same clipboard wielding numbnuts who levies fines for having a sprinkler too close to the sidewalk, or your grass isn't green enough or you aren't integrating enough or only speaking English in public or whatever else the Stepford Council decides will help everyone to feel safe in their gilded cages.

ALT - [f r a m e s] said...

Exactly, Allan.

But I really want them to micro-manage to the nth degree so that everyone can see how petty it really is.

Believe me: if that were to ever happen (an ACCC drone measuring my lawn), I'd snap a photo in a second and forward it to every newspaper in the region. If logic can't quell the mini-Nanny State, then perhaps shame will.

Allum Barstansangur said...

ah you believe the neo-colonial suburbanite to have human feelings such as all too easy mistake to make.

By making them obscenely micro-managing, you will actually be fulfilling their dream of a semi-police state style of living where the responsibility for anything is out of their hands.

They can inform on any neighbour they don't like and ensure the micromanagers spend a lot of time there...and obviously, minorities (who already evoke primal fears in the wagon trains of white suburbia) will feel the brunt of this petty tyranny first.

It would have to go on for quite some time before Whitey McWhitewhite has any run-ins and then and only then will their protest be heard at the latest organic baby food meet or hybrid-car club dinner.

Of course, I could just be a total cynic :P

Allum Barstansangur said...

Also, even the few semi-conscious suburbanites won't protest the abuse and discrimination in their own backyard because TIBET TIBET TIBET AND GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE ORGANIC FUDZ!!!1


ALT - [f r a m e s] said...

In the last few hours I have received a dozen "I LOVED your letter! I am so sick and tired of the ACCC. We should definitely do something!"

Nascent consciousness-raising, Ho!