Julie and Irl Copley have had some minor run-ins with their homeowners association since building their brick house on a spacious two-acre lot in Olathe 14 years ago.
But nothing like the clash over a ramp they recently built for a disabled foster child — without first getting approval from the association.
Now the Copleys and the HOA are at a standoff.
In the week since The Kansas City Star published a series on homes associations, readers — including the Copleys — have responded in full force. Hundreds of phone calls and emails have poured in from across the country as homeowners have shared stories about struggles with their HOAs.
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Several activists and HOA reformers said they, too, have heard from many people seeking advice about problems they’ve encountered with their associations.
The Star’s series found that homes associations wield far more power than homeowners realize and that some actually torment the residents they’re supposed to support. HOA boards are run by volunteers who often have little training, which can lead to a lack of adequate funding, neighborhood strife and even violence, the series found.
Some readers passed along positive stories about their HOAs, including a woman from a subdivision in Prairie Village who said homeowners are so happy there that they call it “Perfect Village.”
And one HOA treasurer said homeowners should stop complaining and get more involved. Many homeowners, he said, don’t attend the annual meetings or social functions but are the most vocal when they receive notice that a majority of the owners have voted to change something in the bylaws.
But many other readers spoke out about what they said were abuses and bullying by HOAs:
▪ A woman in Stockton, Calif., said that when her father was in the hospital after suffering a stroke, she checked on his house daily and found a dead flower outside. Knowing his HOA had strict rules on dead plants, she said, she yanked it out — but within two days, the HOA said it needed to be replaced. Although she said she took an HOA-approved list to the nursery and got a new plant, she was fined by the HOA because the list had apparently been updated and the plant wasn’t on it.
▪ A homeowner in Leavenworth said his HOA kept a $50,000 settlement that was supposed to go to homeowners whose trees were damaged by chemicals from a lawn service company. But he said if homeowners tried to sue the HOA, not only would their legal expenses be more than the settlement, they would also be stuck paying the HOA’s legal costs because they’re all members of the association.
▪ An Overland Park man said his HOA fined him the first night he moved into his townhome because he parked his van on the driveway overnight. He said his son has cerebral palsy and the family had to build a wheelchair ramp in the garage to get him in and out of the house. As a result, he said, the family’s wheelchair accessible van doesn’t fit in the garage. So he has to unload his son, then move the vehicle to a public street about 100 yards away. He said he’d contacted the city of Overland Park but was told that the HOA restrictions trump the city codes.
Ed Burrow of Olathe echoed many residents who contacted The Star.
The series, he wrote, “spoke for many of us who have battled bully boards of associations in our own neighborhoods.”
“My experience supports the notion that many boards are led by people who seem to be searching for the power they have never had in their lives, but who thirst for it,” he said. “They get elected easily for these HOA positions because few qualified residents want to do it. I hope your article opens some eyes and encourages many HOA boards to re-evaluate their methods.”
Brenda Ramsey said she’s seen both sides of HOAs.
She’d previously lived in homes associations in Florida and Virginia prior to moving into Kingston Oaks in Overland Park.
“The board in Virginia seemed to suffer from the bully board syndrome,” she said. “The Florida board struggled with renters in homes grandfathered as rentals.”
At Kingston Oaks, she said, meetings are open and attendance is encouraged. The property management representative attends the meetings and answers questions, she said, and monthly board meeting minutes are provided.
“This remains a beautiful community with very reasonable maintenance fees, solid reserves and a well-managed board,” she said. “I have worked with the board on many occasions and found it to be exemplary in all efforts to offer a delightful place called home.”
The Copleys of Olathe describe their HOA experience as just the opposite.
Over the years, they have been cited for too many weeds in the grass. The baby pool by the swingset out back. Parking a white trailer in the driveway while Julie loaded it for her business. The HOA even slapped a $2,000 lien on their property for failing to enclose their mailbox in bricks.
“It seems like every year we have something come up, but we’ve always obliged and done what they have asked,” Julie Copley said.
Then in May, a group of volunteers from a Leawood church built a sturdy wheelchair ramp for the Copleys’ 11-year-old foster child. The boy, one of two the couple is caring for with special needs, is deaf, blind and has cerebral palsy.
Now the Copleys are embroiled in a dispute with the Mill Creek Grande Homeowners Association. The HOA has ordered them to remove the ramp from the front entrance of their home or cover it up with landscaping.
“They said that it hurt the beautification and flow of the neighborhood,” Irl Copley said. “They can’t have anything that’s not perfect in this neighborhood.”
In a June 3 email to the Copleys, HOA President Don Payne wrote, “Goodwill is one of those things that you build up over time with your neighbors. Ill Will is the reciprocal, it grows when you generally ignore the agreed upon rules and proceed without any concern for neighbors.”
Payne told the Copleys that the ramp could have been placed in their garage, but “you choose to have a business in the garage that disallows that path as an access point.”
“You also choose to invite a child into your home that would require a ramp eventually,” he said. “I applaud your heart in this matter. But your accumulative choices have caused you to ignore your covenants and neighbors to further your own choices.”
Payne also complained about two cars in the Copleys’ driveway “that are marginally drivable at best; and now one of them is up on blocks” — a violation of city codes and HOA covenants.
The Copleys keep “trampling on their neighbors for their own benefit,” he said in his email to them.
Julie Copley told The Star that their son had wrecked a car “and we had it on the driveway so the city was called about that.”
“That was a legitimate call, I understood that,” she said.
Payne told The Star that the Copleys’ ramp didn’t follow the association’s covenants.
“The rules are there for a reason and everyone agrees to them when they move into the neighborhood,” Payne said in an email. “These are not draconian rules. There is a rule in basically every HOA that you get approval before you build; otherwise people could build whatever they want.”
Payne said the HOA had been trying to work with the Copleys to resolve the issue.
“The HOA requested that the ramp have landscaping placed in front of, which initially the Copleys agreed to, but hence have not completed to date,” he said. “The reason we have been so patient is because we are very sympathetic to their situation, but what do you do as an HOA when a party performs in this manner?”
The Copleys said they’ve grown weary of fighting and would like to move. But that’s not easy to do, they said. Besides the two foster children, they have several adopted and biological children living at home, along with Julie’s mother.
“It takes time finding housing for everyone,” Julie Copley said. “With foster kids, we’d have to buy another house in order to move in it first and get it approved by the state.”
And then there’s the lien, which needs to be cleared before they can sell their house. Though they have built the brick mailbox as required, the HOA hasn’t dismissed the lien.
Payne told The Star that the architectural committee has to approve the mailbox and ensure that it has been acid-washed before the lien is released. He said the HOA in 2011 had filed liens on four houses that did not have brick mailboxes as required by the covenants, including a former HOA president’s house. Those houses were built at a time when Olathe would not allow brick mailboxes, he said, but that rule was later rescinded.
As they search for a new home, the Copleys said they’d like their current neighbors to think about something.
“I just wish that our neighbors would understand how this could affect them possibly sometime in their life,” Julie Copley said, “if their children had an accident that they needed a wheelchair ramp or even have an elderly parent that needs a ramp.”
They say the issue has taken a toll on the family.
“This has been crushing,” Julie Copley said. “There have been a lot of sleepless nights, and a lot of tears have been shed.”
Do you have an HOA story to share?
Have you had positive or negative experiences you would like to share about your homeowners association?
Kansas City Star reporters would like to hear them. We plan to select some of the best to publish, so please include your name and phone number to allow us to call you back if we plan to use your story.
Please send your story to HOA@kcstar.com.