Little plot of pansies costs homeowner $19,000

Jim Lane shows the bare spot where he had planted pansies.
Jim Lane shows the bare spot where he had planted pansies.

How much does a pansy cost?

For Jim Lane, $527.

Multiply that by 36 and that’s what Lane spent after getting sideways with his homeowners association for planting three dozen pansies in a bare patch in the Gilead Ridge subdivision in Huntersville, N.C.

Lane had grown tired of looking at the spot across from his house, so in 2011 he planted the colorful flowers in a 3-by-4-foot common area that he said had been neglected for three years.

“It was a full bed of blooming pansies,” Lane said. “They were beautiful. And all my neighbors said, ‘Great. Finally somebody’s done something.’ 

Within a week, however, he received a “cease and desist” letter from the HOA attorney saying he’d committed a violation by planting something in a common space without permission.

“Technically, they were correct,” Lane said. “But it was a common space they had failed to improve for years.”

The HOA held a hearing when he was out of the country, Lane said, and decided to fine him $100 for every day the flowers remained in the ground — something Lane said he wasn’t told.

“I finally got a notice from them and they said you’re up to $6,000 in fines,” he said. “Then I got a note from the lawyer saying we’re adding $1,500 in legal fees because we’re filing a lien.”

By the time the lien was filed, Lane said, the fines and legal fees totaled nearly $9,000.

“At that point, I was 24 hours away from foreclosure,” said Lane, an engineer and leadership consultant. “They were going to own my home the next day.”

Lane paid the $9,000 and pulled the pansies, then sued the HOA to try to recover his loss.

Eventually he gave up.

“They were just wearing me down,” said Lane, who pays $175 a month for HOA dues in the maintenance-provided subdivision.

By the end, he said he’d spent $19,000 on attorney fees and fines.

“I had to drop it,” he said. “Otherwise, it was going to financially ruin me.”

According to a statement from the HOA’s legal advisers, “Mr. Lane is known locally as a vocal opponent of homeowners associations while at the same time he markets himself as a for-hire consultant to HOAs and as a management company.”

Lane, who previously had served on the HOA board, said he believed the board went after him over the pansies because he had angered members by raising a legal liability issue during his tenure.

The experience turned Lane into an activist whose mission is to raise awareness about HOAs. He founded the North Carolina Coalition for HOA Laws Reform and runs a website at nchoalaws.org that pushes for tougher regulations.

“The legislators have to wake up and realize that owners are truly not being protected,” he said. “One of them needs to have their home taken away by an HOA so they can understand the problem.”

Judy L. Thomas: 816-234-4334, @judylthomas