LAKEWOOD RANCH — Some of Joani Ellis’ neighbors are terrified of their own homeowners association.
Ellis is the Lakewood Ranch woman who is fighting the Summerfield/Riverwalk Homeowners Association for fining her $1,600 for having more than three decorative items in her front yard on Yellowtop Drive in Summerfield Glen.
Ellis’ case came to be known as “Decogate” when she went out on her own and snapped pictures of other front yards of high profile residents who were in violation of the same rule.
Violators included past association president Carol Frankland, current secretary Marlene Van Pelt and District 1 supervisor Alan Roth, all of whom received warning letters from the association.
On Sunday, some residents who live on Yellowtop Drive said they support the woman who is getting traffic going by her house to see the yard that has caused all the fuss.
But perhaps more telling was the fear that immediately was drawn over their faces when asked if they would allow their names to used with their comments in the newspaper. Nearly all said becoming the target of retaliation from the homeowners association prevented them speaking other than anonymously.
Only one of Ellis’ neighbors, Pam Brown, the bookkeeper of East Manatee Fire Rescue, would go on the record.
“If people don’t stand up and speak out, they deserve what happens to them,” Brown said.
Brown painted a picture of a homeowners association, assisted by an after-hours deed enforcement official, that goes out in the community looking for the tiniest of infractions, which is exactly what they have been asked to do by the community.
It’s the things they look for that irks Brown — in many cases things that would seem to beautify a neighborhood or be so trivial to be absurd.
The association checks on trellises that are snuck in front of a house, too many flower pots in the front yard, stains on driveways, excess decorative items, including rocks, and other minor issues, all rules that residents came up with long ago.
Brown says the price paid for keeping the neighborhood from going to the dogs is fear among residents that they will be next to the discovered with something not right, for which they will find a warning letter in their mailbox.
Brown has been in conflict with the association for a five-foot tall flower trellis that she put up without clearance from the association’s modification committee. She has since removed it after receiving letters.
Brown, who believes Ellis’ yard is one of the nicest in their neighborhood and increases property values, says the association’s rules just don’t follow common sense.
The associated should be concentrating on things like tractor trailer trucks and boats in driveways, rusty cars on blocks, cars parked on lawns, signs, weeds out of control and other major departures from master planned living, of which there about none, Brown said.
“The association should make sure grass isn’t up to knees and tree limbs don’t whip you in the face when you walk by,” Brown said. “But as far decorative items, it’s a matter of taste.”
Dave Kostura, president of another association in Lakewood Ranch — Country Club/Edgewater Village — said associations have the tough task of defending the many against the actions of a few. It’s not always a popular place to be. But Kostura answered, “Absolutely not,” when asked if an association should be inciting terror in residents.
“I think the role of an association is as a group of individuals who try to act on the best interests in community, who listen to residents and find out what they need in terms of changes,” Kostura said.
Kostura, a 10-year resident of Edgewater Village, said he has never heard a resident say they were terrified of the Country Club/Edgewater Village Homeowners Association. The association does have a rule prohibiting rocks in flower beds, due to the threat of them becoming missiles in a hurricane.
Residents who are afraid need to elect fellow residents they trust, Kostura said.
Ellis received the necessary votes to become a member of the neighborhood committee at Summerfield Glen, but in a phone message that she has saved on her computer, a Town Hall officials said she would not be able to assume her seat because of her outstanding fines.
Brown and Ellis said nearly all Summerfield residents they know have gotten at least one letter from the association.
“I don’t think we should be terrorized by people whose salaries we are paying for,” Brown said, speaking of Town Hall’s deed enforcement department, run by Cynthia Wills.
Wills has refused comment on anything having to do with the Ellis case.
Ellis, who plans to come before the association board March 25 and read a letter of appeal, has started a new Lakewood Ranch group called, “Lakewood Ranch Homeowners’ Bill of Rights” whose mission is to have a voice and modify some of the rules.
Ellis hopes to have a giant yard sale at an approved place in the future where residents can sell all their excessive decorative items. Money raised will go to Blair E. Batson Children’s Hospital in Jackson, Miss., where all children are treated regardless of their parents’ finances, Ellis said.
Those who wish to join Lakewood Ranch Bill of Rights can e-mail Ellis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, Ext. 6686.