Guilt By Association

Homeowner Associations Across The Country Say They've Entered A Kinder, Gentler Age. Tell It To Armando Lazarte.

HERE'S ONE THING for certain in tidy but troubled Monterra Hills, and it is this: Armando Lazarte painted his gate.

That's right. He painted his gate.

In a wild-eyed, unholy dalliance with demons of landscape design, the upstart retiree splashed his tiny sidegate in an outlandish hue known as "milkshake."

Milkshake. As in off-white. As in the same color he painted his house, and the inside face of a backyard wall. In fact, as in the same bland color of nearly every other home in this innocuous subdivision on Tucson's northwest side.

But from there, his tale turns to murky shades of gray, a sublime narrative on the bitter, absurd levels to which many homeowner associations will stoop in enforcing their often misguided wills. It's also the story of one local realtor run amok, of possible racial discrimination, and of several folks who apparently wield a little too much power and have way too much free time on their hands.

Ironically, all this comes at a time when the nation's more than 200,000 associations -- including roughly 700 in Pima County -- are supposedly trying to soften their hard lines, to relieve what's become a national epidemic of petty acrimony.

First, back to Armando Lazarte. The longtime systems analyst came west in 1997, hoping to find peace and quiet -- and relief from his chronic arthritis -- in the soothing Sonoran Desert. His new Monterra Hills home was to become a sanctuary; sunny and cheerful, the house is planted in a nice, quiet subdivision where the occasional buzz-cut kid on a skateboard might raise a few eyebrows.

Soon, he was finished painting that house, and doing up the front in a sedate Southwestern motif. And that's when the trouble began, in the form of a meddling neighbor named Randy Gossett. It just so happens that Gossett sells homes for Tucson Realty, in Monterra Hills no less. The sales associate also just happens to hold a powerful post as chairman of the Monterra Hills Homeowners Association Architectural Review Committee.

In some minds, that would suggest a conflict of interest.

In Randy Gossett's mind, however, any such conclusions remain a mystery, since he refused to comment for this story.

Anyhow, after Armando Lazarte painted his gate, and one interior back wall, in milkshake, he received a terse note generated by Gossett's committee. Dated December 8, 1998, it informed Lazarte that he needed approval for the paint job under Article 4, Section 4.3 of the association rules, officially known as Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions, or more commonly as CC&Rs.

On December 23, Lazarte received another missive saying that "after a review of your backyard step wall and the painting of the side backyard gate (Article Standard, Page 4, Section 11, part B) the committee has denied the request of both of these items.

"The ARC Committee is asking that you please correct the unapproved items within 30 days from the receipt of this letter."

The correspondence was signed by Edna Balko, association manager for Cadden Parfrey Services, which runs Monterra Hills under contract with the association board of directors. As ARC chairman, Gossett sits on that board.

Being retired, Lazarte also had some extra time to research the rules. What he came up with was a seven-page letter rebutting, item-by-item, the association's complaint. First, he notes that he was told by Ted Rivard, Balko's predecessor, that he didn't need approval to paint the gate off-white. Second, he discovered that the "Article 4" referred, not to approved colors of paint, but to association fees.

Third, the committee based its stance on "Article 11," which in fact deals only with the annexation of additional property -- hardly encompassing paint jobs. According to Lazarte, that meant the ARC didn't even have jurisdiction over the matter. And he found that the CC&Rs contained no such animal as "Article Standard."

"They sure were barking up the wrong tree," he says.

Most damning, Lazarte took snapshots around his neighborhood showing numerous gates that were painted red, tan and even off-white, usually to match the colors of accompanying homes -- sans the nasty letters.

Apparently, the association chose to ignore its own hypocrisy. Replying in a handful of letters, Balko denied that Ted Rivard ever dispensed gate-painting advice to Lazarte, and blamed discrepancies concerning the cited articles on "typographical errors."

On that shaky basis, each of Lazarte's appeals to the association were denied. He has since taken his case to the Arizona Attorney General's Office, which he says is reviewing the matter for possible discrimination. As policy, the AG's office "neither confirms nor denies" its involvement.

Lazarte also alleges that Gossett, in his drive to sell homes in Monterra Hills, is attempting to fashion the neighborhood to his liking, or rather, to the liking of his potential clients.

In other words, says Lazarte, a community full of white folks with children.

Lazarte and his wife are natives of Peru. Mrs. Lazarte speaks only Spanish. They don't have kids. Armando Lazarte says the battle has been draining, and worsened his already chronic health problems. "We almost feel like just packing up and moving out over this. They just won't leave us alone -- it's like we don't even have rights over our own home."

Meanwhile, despite all their blustering threats against one little homeowner, officials of Cadden Parfrey suddenly grew shy when contacted by the Tucson Weekly. Neither owner Mike Cadden -- a tough-talking former Navy SEAL and failed Oro Valley mayoral candidate who stumped for "a more positive slant on leadership" -- nor manager Edna Balko returned repeated phone calls. When contacted, Ted Rivard refused to comment.

But John Price, the company's director of management services, did talk to a Weekly reporter earlier this year, in an interview unrelated to Lazarte's case. At the time, Price cited a national trend for associations such as Monterra Hills to move away from internal bickering. "Association leaders are saying, 'No, let's go out and build community instead,' " he said. "They're saying 'Let's be more friendly, let's be more community-oriented, let's build a happier place.' That's the change that's going on."

Tell that to Armando Lazarte.

WHILE ASSOCATIONS SUCH as Monterra Hills promise to maintain property values and keep neighborhoods neat, their booming growth is obviously pushing many Americans across the fence-line of civility.

Heavy-handed rules and arbitrary enforcement are often blamed for pitting neighbor against neighbor, and turning serene subdivisions into raucous battle zones. At the same time, industry insiders like Price tout a movement towards more humane associations, where yelling matches are replaced by relaxed regulations and calm mediation.

Either way, widespread situations such as Lazarte's are prompting a thorough reevaluation of associations and their roles.

With roots in 19th-century Boston, these quasi-democratic bodies -- also called residential community associations or common interest developments -- now govern an estimated 42 million Americans. Today it's nearly impossible to purchase a new home that doesn't come with an association attached.

Typically installed by developers to govern budding villages, they provide amenities ranging from recreation centers to trash pickup. Under their tutelage parks are established, swimming pools maintained and architectural consistency imposed, all financed by membership fees. Rules are set through deed restrictions, and overseen by boards of directors comprised of neighbors and developers' representatives.

Along with promoting a comforting uniformity, they also control the minutiae of daily existence for affected residents, right down to where you plop your petunia patch. All too often, say critics, that power is abused by neighbors with scores to settle.

The result may be a national backlash. "Common interest developments are really starting to cause consumer resentment," says Frederick Pilot, president of the Common Interest Consumer Project based in Sacramento, California. Pilot calls such associations "a vast social experiment with an uncertain future."

He cites a growing number of complaints on his local consumer-oriented radio show, and on the project's website. "Mostly we hear about boards making decisions in secret, and not soliciting member input when they make decisions," he says. "But the bottom line is this: when people buy a house, they don't realize they're buying into a set of regulations already established by a corporation."

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 your home, or even foreclosure.

Lawmakers are listening as well. In April, Texas legislators 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 Sun Belt states with a plethora of associations, such as Nevada, are following suit with crackdowns on recurrent excesses.

And last spring, the Arizona lawmakers passed a pair of bills affecting associations. One would allow other liens to take priority over those filed by associations against a particular property (not exactly homeowner-friendly legislation).

But the second bill does give embattled residents a chance to fight back, by requiring that associations disclose all information they have related to pending action against a member.

Such reforms -- timid as they may be -- are long overdue, says Evan McKenzie, a University of Chicago researcher and author of Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government. The book is highly critical of many association practices.

Left unchecked, they "can really create little neighborhood Hitlers," he says, adding that "only lawyers tend to come out ahead when the dust settles."

Still, McKenzie is guardedly optimistic that both associations and the legal community see a need for change. "I think they realize that it comes down to giving these communities a chance to become communities," he says.

Foremost among those now trumpeting reform is the Community Associations Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group for association managers, lawyers and homeowners Such efforts represent a big shift for the CAI: when McKenzie's book was published in 1994, an institute spokesperson labeled it "tabloid journalism." Today, however, McKenzie and the CAI enjoy closer ties; the author has spoken at CAI-sponsored forums, and his writing appears in the group's publications.

CAI spokeswoman Donna Reichle blames the earlier discord with McKenzie on "a lack of communication." But she says her organization has increasingly focused on enhancing harmony within associations. The topic was recently discussed at a national conference, and is the subject of seminars for association managers and attorneys. "We're directing more of our energy towards building communities, and away from nit-picking and rigid enforcement of rules," Reichle says.

In its drive to promote kinder, gentler associations, the CAI recently published a cute paperback titled Be Reasonable! How Community Associations Can Enforce Rules Without Antagonizing Residents, Going to Court, or Starting World War III.

Even Wayne Hyatt, an Atlanta attorney considered a national leader in association law (and closely linked to the CAI) claims that his profession is undergoing reform. "I think there's been too much focus on restrictions, and not enough on the people that live in these communities," he says. "It's time for association lawyers to get away from business as usual."

BUT BACK IN Tucson, and despite all the upbeat chatter, Armando Lazarte is still getting the business from his association. And Randy Gossett still heads the Monterra Hills Architectural Review Committee.

Lazarte remains a bit baffled about why he was singled out for harassment, and hammered with apparently fabricated rules.

He does have a hint, however, and it isn't pretty.

The clue dates back to December, 1998, and a conversation he had with Randy Gossett, at about the same time he started getting letters from the association. "Randy lives across the street, and he came over and said, 'Oh, this needs to be changed, and that needs to be changed,' " Lazarte says. "It's like he owned this house."

When Lazarte pointed out that his painted backyard wall wasn't visible from the street, Gossett suggested they walk to a viewpoint up the block. Lazarte's wife Norma, an architect, accompanied them. "She was asking questions, and I was translating them for Randy," Lazarte says. "When we were walking, Randy said to me, 'Doesn't your wife even speak English?' "

The query was couched in a condescending tone, Lazarte says. "For me, that triggered one thing: this has to be discriminatory." In the next breath, Gossett then told him he'd have to paint his TV antennae. "In other words, first he's picking out one thing, and then another thing. What's going to be next?"

It wasn't the first time Gossett tried to throw his aesthetic weight around. According to Jill Weber Dean, an attorney who also lives in Monterra Hills, Gossett repeatedly tried to keep neighbor Terry Sarabia from parking his truck on the street. After steady haranguing, Gossett finally stormed up to Sarabia's home and threatened to call the cops if the vehicle wasn't moved.

"That's when Terry pulled out his badge and said, 'I am a cop, and I have a perfect right to park my vehicle there. It's a public street,' " Weber Dean says.

Sarabia, an officer with the Tucson Police Department, didn't return a phone call seeking comment.

Gossett wisely retreated, she says, but soon the association came up with a petition asking members to vote for restricted street parking.

Asked whether she considers Gossett's involvement with the association a conflict of interest, she doesn't hesitate. "Absolutely," she says.

But Gossett's boss disagrees. Peter Ware, president of residential sales for Tucson Realty, says realtors sit on association boards all over town. "In fact, we encourage our agents to participate" in their associations, he says. "In that role, they can be a benefit to everybody."

Why, he asks, "would a realtor want to create problems leading to neighborhood instability which could potentially lower property values?"

Still, Weber Dean considers Lazarte's situation a blatant case of discrimination by an overzealous board, led by a tyrannical salesman. "Why else would the Architectural Review Committee interpret the CC&Rs so illogically and irrationally," she asks, "attempting to enforce rules that don't even exist?"

Another neighbor, Ken Klauss, also springs to Lazarte's defense. "As for Randy Gossett, I think he's just trying to sell a bunch of houses in here," he says. "Really, my wife and I drove around Monterra Hills, and we saw gates painted a variety of colors, everything you can imagine."

Then why is the association picking on Armando Lazarte?

"Some sort of discrimination is the only explanation I can come up with," Klauss says. "That, and the fact that the board is such a bunch of needle-butts, a bunch of petty people."

As for his own encounters, Klauss says his wife is Jewish, and shortly after they put a religious symbol on their front door for the holidays, they were greeted by a burning bag of dog shit on the doorstep.

"That was really great," he says.

So much for America's kinder, gentler neighborhood associations, and the kinder, gentler neighbors they create.