November 6, 2009

The Statue Standoff - Lessons for Curbing Community Conflict?

A few months ago, Glenn and Laura Wolf bought a house in a planned development in South Corvallis, Oregon. They placed five statues (ranging from 6 inches to 3 feet in height) in their front yard, including Christian figures, a Hindu deity, and an Indian chief. A neighbor complained. The association informed the Wolfs that the statues required board approval. The Wolfs responded that there is nothing in the governing documents that specifically addresses statues. Statuegate was born.

The Wolfs and the association each hired attorneys. An effort to recall three members of the association’s board is underway. The board recently offered to settle the dispute by allowing the current statues to stay as long as no more are added. The Wolfs rejected that offer, and they appear to be willing to litigate the issue. The Wolfs’ strong perception that the board is selectively enforcing the rules against them may make legal action inevitable.

Statuegate serves as a reminder that disputes over rules can escalate quickly if certain conditions are present, including ambiguous governing documents, debatable harm to the community, and owners who believe that they are being singled out for different treatment. Boards should always consider the likelihood of a legal challenge when deciding how to exercise broad authority and apply specific rules. Giving owners an adequate opportunity to be heard, discussing their concerns in a civil manner, and offering compromises when appropriate can keep small fires from turning into large ones.