Too often homeowner associations get a bad rap.
They are painted as power-trippers who take pleasure in controlling everything from what color you can paint your house to what kind of grass you can plant in your yard.
In reality, most HOAs are made up of volunteer board members enforcing rules that everybody agreed to when they moved in, to keep the neighborhood looking good and running smoothly.
And then, occasionally, an HOA does something so over-the-top that it's no wonder they can't shed the "suburban tyrant" label.
Take the case of homeowner David Acosta and the Alaqua Property Owners Association.
Acosta bought a home in the upscale Seminole County subdivision in 2000. It's the kind of neighborhood that comes with all the trappings of country-club life: Big houses with golf-course views. Pristine landscaping in the common areas. And a guarded gate at the entrance.
All of that has a price, about $800 a quarter or $3,200 a year, payable to the Alaqua association.
Acosta fell behind in his payments. Exactly how much he owes is in dispute, but even he acknowledges he owes something and has started making payments into a court registry.
I don't begrudge the HOA for going after what it is owed. It's how the HOA is going about it that's raising eyebrows.
If a homeowner isn't paying his or her share, the HOA has every right to cut off the homeowner's access to the neighborhood's swimming pool or tennis courts. No pay, no play.
That's simple enough, and even Acosta says he has no problem with that concept (though Alaqua doesn't happen to have a community pool).
But Alaqua is trying to take it a step farther. The association barred Acosta from using the residents' lane at the gated entrance. And it prohibited his family, friends, and other visitors — like the pizza delivery guy — from driving on the neighborhood's private roads.
The HOA wouldn't give Acosta's car a bar code, so he couldn't use the automatic gate for residents, forcing him to stop and talk with the guard every time he entered. And it blocked access to his visitors; one got so scared when the guard threatened to call the police that he left, according to Acosta's court complaint.
This is where the HOA begins to look less like an organization that is just trying to collect what it's owed and more like a bully interfering with a resident's property rights.
"This is not just debt collection, it's oppression," Acosta said.
Acosta sued, asserting the restrictions violated his basic rights as a property owner.
A judge agreed and temporarily lifted the restrictions last year. That temporary decision was upheld by an appeals court last month. A judge could rule any day on a permanent decision.
Jim Gustino, an attorney for the Alaqua HOA who helps enforce similar gate rules at other subdivisions such as Stoneybrook East and Stoneybrook West, says the restrictions are perfectly reasonable.
Because the roads inside the gated subdivisions are private, they are common areas that the HOA has the power to restrict access to.
And amazingly, he said, people who were past due seem to come up with the money once the restrictions are discussed.
"My position is that it's simply encouraging folks to do what they should be doing anyway," Gustino said.
After all, if some residents stop paying their dues, others end up paying more.
I couldn't agree more that that's a bum deal for the other homeowners.
But the HOA has other ways it can go after unpaid debts such as through the court system or selling the debt to a debt collector. But the homeowner — and his friends — have just one entrance to his home, and that's past the front gate.
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