Battle Over Private Nativity Scene

In Novi, Michigan, there's a big battle kicking up over a family's nativity scene in their front yard. The problem is that they live in a neighborhood with a neighborhood association that has rules against such displays:

The Samonas' neighborhood association has ordered the Novi family to remove its seven-piece plastic display or face possible fines of $25 to $100 per week.

The family isn't budging and neither are its three wise men. The Samonas have vowed not only to keep the display, but also are threatening to enhance it."If you take this out, it's not Christmas anymore," said Joe Samona, 16, as he reached down and scooped baby Jesus from the creche on his parents' front lawn.

A letter sent by the association to the Samonas has brought to their front yard the nation's latest skirmish over just how and where the Christianity of Christmas should be on display.

Last week, Joe's parents, Betty and Frank Samona, received a notice from the community association that sets regulations in their upscale Tollgate Woods subdivision. It said the family may be violating rules that prohibit lawn ornaments, statues or outdoor art from being placed on the lot without prior approval of the board of directors.

Then it simply says: "Please remove the nativity scene display from your front yard."...

Dean Williams, the community association manager and author of the letter, said according to association rules in place since 2000 and signed by the Samonas when they bought the home in 2002, homeowners must request permission to place statues or lawn ornaments outside their home. The Samonas say they never signed any such document.

I have mixed feelings on this one. On the one hand, I wouldn't live in a neighborhood with a neighborhood assocation if you put a gun to my head. Not for a millisecond am I going to tolerate being told that my mailbox is too big, or my wreath is too wide, or that I can't park my car where I want to because some busybody with nothing better to do than stare out their window can't keep their mouth shut. On the other hand, if you're stupid enough to buy a house with such an association as a condition of ownership (achieved through covenants in the master deed), then you're legally bound to follow the rules even if you don't like them. And I'll guarantee that they did sign such papers when they bought the house, even if they don't know they did. And if they signed the papers without first knowing what the HOA agreement said, they deserve everything they get.

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I live in an HOA community. Luckily it is a rather ineffectual one. I have been able to paint my house as I see fit and have my mailbox that looks like a barn. I was able to remove the sickly pear tree in frint of my house before it fell down. On the down side, I have a neighbor with very loud dogs that have completely destroyed the backyard, but I can put up with that.

I would prefer to live a community without an HOA, but they are becoming rarer and rarer in areas that are building new housing. Realistically for a house that I could afford and I could commute to work in less than an hour there was no such option. This has been driven in part by a desire by local governments to increase their tax base without a corresponding increase in services.

When my choice to live in a non-HOA community is thwarted by economic forces, it seems reasonable for government to step in and put some limits on how intrusive the HOA's can be. Christmas decorations are inherently temporary. They cannot drive down housing values, which is the justifcation that most HOA's use for their regulations.

As far as I am concerned, HOAs are unconstitutional forms of government, because they are governments by coercion. It is not as if one is able to move into the neighborhood without joining the HOA, which is why I also refused to even consider any such arrangement when I was looking for a house.

They also destroy the concept of a neighbodhood - part of the fun and frustration of living in this country is that we are all different - forcing cookie-cutter conformity totally destroys that.

How many neighborhoods DON'T have HOAs these days? I'm lucky enough to live in one whose HOA has sensible rules (mostly aimed at keeping the "colonial" flavor that I liked so much when I first saw the house); it also provides useful services for the fees I pay, so I can't find much to bitch about there.

I suspect that the Samonas could have avoided any controversy by getting permission in advance from the HOA. Would they really have refused a reasonable request? I also suspect they're just plain lying when they deny having consented to the HOA's rules. When I bought my house, I was given a copy of the HOA rules and explicitly told I could cancel the entire purchase without penalty if I didn't want to be bound by the rules.

I further suspect that either the Samonas' display is unusually huge or tasteless, or the HOA are choosing to interpret their rules more strictly than they really need to.

As much as you do not like HOA's or think they are unconstitutional forms of government, there is no constitutional right for you to live there. The Samonas opted-in to live there because it gave them a sence of upward mobility, greased their neauvo-riche inner children, or whatever. By opting-in to the neighborhood, they are bound and this really has nothing to do with "Attacking the Christian Christmas" as seems to be increasingly vogue amongst the fundies these days.

I think these HOAs stand in contradiction to the more extreme libertarians who oppose all zoning laws and other government mandates that you not be a pain-in-the-ass neighbor. The alternative is these HOAs. They're a purely voluntary association that you choose to belong to, and hence acceptable from a libertarian view, but they're really no more voluntary than zoning laws. Either way, you know what you're getting into when you buy, and if you don't like it, your only option is to live somewhere else. The salient difference is that zoning laws can be changed through the democratic process, whereas HOAs often can't.

As the former president of an HOA, I gotta speak up. First, there's a difference between a neighborhood association and an HOA. If you live in townhouse or condo (Common Interest Development), you have to have some sort of HOA. At the very least, they're responsible for common area maintenance items like roads, pools, etc. Mine has responsibility for painting and roofs as well. It's not clear from the article whether this was an HOA for a CID or neighborhood association. If the HOA is responsible for landscaping, then that's a valid reason for restricting statues. If the residents do that, then I think the association may have gone too far. However, as Ed said, they had to have signed a form indicating that they had recieved the CCRs; probably they never read them.

By OrigamiGuy (not verified) on 01 Dec 2005 #permalink

I don't know the details of this case, but home owners associations are frequently established by developers and are enforced by deed covenants that (i) call for a formation of an HOA, and (ii) require purchasers to adhere to the dictates of the HOA. If someone purchases property covered by a deed covenant, he or she is bound by the covenant, even if it is not explicitly recited in the deed. A deed covenant is part of the contract for purchase of the property

We might quibble over whether that is right, but it is the fact. And that is one reason why someone who is proposing purchasing property should do a title search--eventually during the search the existence of a deed covenant would show up.

Oh, and, yes, it bears similarities to condo associations, but with single family detached housing. I'm not exactly sure that that differentiation would have much weight, though.


OrigamiGuy at December 1, 2005 02:57 PM

You are quite correct. The newspaper reporter was apparently unable to distinguish between a contractual obligation (perhaps by a covenant in the deed) and a social "obligation" (which may or may not have been imposed by a legally constituted body. I actually do wish that newspapers would get reporters who are more in tune with the law.

Steve Reuland at November 30, 2005 07:04 PM

I'll play devil's advocate.

The salient difference is that zoning laws can be changed through the democratic process, whereas HOAs often can't.

And who do you believe selects the members of the board of the HOAs? The Flying Speghetti Monster? I doubt it. I suspect that the boards of the HOAs are selected by the residents of the relevant neighborhoods via democratic processes. What more would you want?

As has been often mentioned (not necessarily here) if someone does not want to participate in the democratic process, he doesn't have much cause to complain about the outcome of the process.

BTW, I acknowledge that SPM is satire.