Lakewood Ranch HOA on wrong side of rules vs. disability issue

May 1, 2014 

The Summerfield/Riverwalk Village Association board of directors surely must not see the heartless and untenable position they've taken regarding neighborhood rules and a disabled teenager.

In refusing to grant homeowner Michael Groves an exception to association rules and design standards, the board rejected his addition of a narrow pea gravel and sand path -- a safety measure for his 15-year-old stepson, Ben.

The youngster has autism and epilepsy, suffers multiple seizures monthly and wears an expensive helmet to prevent a head injury or death during a fall.

He's not allowed to walk down the concrete driveway for fear of a severe injury, so he takes the adjacent path, built of forgiving materials, to reach the front yard and play with his remote-control cars.

Groves installed the path three years ago, going so far as to match the path materials with his house color -- thus blending in with the neighborhood, Herald writer Sabrina Rocco reported Wednesday.

But he was told to replace the pea gravel and sand with pavers or other concrete material at an April 16 board meeting. That would defeat the purpose of a safe walkway.

Then the board sent him a letter stating his request for a variance had been denied. So rules are rules, without exception regardless of the circumstances?

The optics here reflect poorly on the homeowners association. And the board may have run afoul of the federal Fair Housing Act.

That law states: "One type of disability discrimination prohibited by the Act is a refusal to permit, at the expense of the person with a disability, reasonable modifications of existing premises occupied or to be occupied by such person if such modifications may be necessary to afford such person full enjoyment of the premises."

Groves, who maintains his gravel path is a reasonable modification, contacted the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requesting an investigation.

The agency's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity agreed to conduct a probe. The association could face federal charges should the investigation determine a violation occurred. That should send shivers down the backs of the association board.

We recommend a hasty retreat, and the granting of the variance. This should be a humanitarian issue, not a rules issue.

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