Thursday, February 16, 2006


There has been a new conflagration in the neighborhood between three contentious families. I don't know if it is something in the soil or something about the personal chemistry of these three families, but they live in perhaps the most disputed triangle of our development. It seems disputes have raged for decades and I am involved in the most recent because I have volunteered to be on the neighborhood's Architectural Review Committee.

The Architectural Review Committee is a bureaucratic thing that makes sure all external changes to houses in the neighborhood conform to the "Covenants and Guidelines," the documents set up to maintain a uniform appearance in the neighborhood.

I realized that all sounds hegemonic and elitist, and in many ways it is, but it also has some really positive side effects. And you could say that the process, though often a hassle, generally works. On the negative side, it limits people from doing whatever they want; it forces people to notify neighbors of exterior changes; and it forces people to jump through a few hoops in order to make any changes. On the positive side, it forces people to be "neighborly," to talk to their neighbors; it offers a way to moderate disputes; it generally gets people to rethink doing whacko things with their house that they might regret; and it has kept property values high.

The current case involves a family in a one-story house that wants to add a second story. About half-a-dozen other houses will be affected, but it is the two families in the two looming two-story houses behind them that are the most vociferous in their concerns and have gotten the lawyers involved.

The strategy of the committee is to ask the family wanting to "pop their top" to put up markers where the new corners of their house will be. In the past, that job alone has gotten people to reconsider any additions. Not so in this case. So the next step, once the markers were up, was to tour the affected houses and ascertain what the real impact would be.

This process usually results in some compromises and a happy conclusion for all. This time, because of the disputes that have gone back and forth between these three families, chances for that are low. Due both to the situation and the personalities involved, I feel a lawsuit is inevitable.

But still, I enjoyed our tour of the affected houses. We visited six houses and saw what impact the addition would have on each house. The two looming houses behind are really quite spectacular. I didn't want to go home at the end.

One of the houses we visited, less spectacular, less affected, is owned by a tiny, sweet, older couple. They did not participate in the meetings or the tour, but their son, a lawyer representing them, did. When we got to their house, their son said it was not a good day to go in, that his mother was not doing well. I gathered she sufferers from Alzheimer’s and some days she is more with it than others. But as we assembled to see the views from their front porch, we were invited in and she seemed to be having a good day after all.

The house was immaculate. That was the first thing that struck me. I am not old or infirm, but my house would never look that good. The woman was welcoming, but a bit confused. "What is this? Who are these people? What is going on?" she asked repeatedly as we thanked her and smiled on our way in. Her husband and son gently explained that there was a proposed change to the roofline across the street.

I doubt this was the first time she had heard the news, but it all seemed new to her again. "An addition? There? Across the street?" Someone asked her what she thought of the idea. She was not shy in her response. Despite the fact that she was confused and surrounded by strangers, she loudly and clearly said. "No, I don't want there to be a roof there. I think it is a terrible idea. I don't want that at all." No confusion there. She came through loud and clear on a cloudy and contentious day.

The dispute continues, with no compromise in sight. The strong old woman is but a minor part of it. But I enjoyed her ease at expressing her opinion. I think that is a gift that comes with age. You no longer have to be diplomatic. You no longer feel such a need to compromise. You know your opinion and you can voice it clearly. I can't wait.

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