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Bad news in the Mueller HOA

Thanks to Marcus Sanford, I now have copies of two of the Mueller Homeowners' Association documents and they're not a pretty sight. Supposedly they're available through the Travis County Clerk Public Records site (search for instrument # 2004238007) but I don't see a link to downloadable copies, so I've mirrored them.

I've only looked through them briefly, but so far I've found the following probably contentious points in Exhibit X:

Section 2.11 Signs (PDF p. 14)
"No sign of any kind may be displayed to the public view on any Unit without the prior written approval of the New Construction Council" except for legal notices, for sale and for rent signs, and a "No Soliciting" sign no larger than 25 square inches. There is no exception for political signs, religious signs, or even yard sale signs.
 
Section 2.07: Maintenance (PDF pp. 11-12)
Requires "keeping lawn and garden areas alive, free of weeds, and in an attractive condition," a matter which is in the eye of the beholder, but which as interpreted by most suburban HOAs effectively bans wildflower meadows and a lot of vegetable gardening and xeriscaping techniques. Section 2.06 could easily be interpreted to prohibit composting as well.
 
Section 2.05 Animals (PDF p. 11)
Effectively bans outdoor cats.

I suspect there are many more. Matters like paint colors seem to be deferred to the "Design Guidelines". I can't tell whether that is the same as the Mueller Design Book prepared by Roma and dated November, 2004. The Mueller Design Book doesn't read like a set of hard rules (see disclaimers on its PDF p. 4) and defers specific choices about materials and treatments to the New Construction Committee (see PDF pp. 52-53). Does that mean that residents would get a list of approved paint colors from the NCC which would carry the force of law?

Beside the banning of signage and the vague language throughout Exhibit X requiring an "attractive condition", I don't see any references to other forms of expression such as art and flags. (A friend in Katy tells me that people there are circulating a petition door to door banning rainbow flags. I thought that couldn't possibly fly until I realized that perhaps they're asking the HOA to classify them as "signs".)

I couldn't find any reference to unmarried non-relatives living together (which would ban gay couples as well as straight people living in sin). I wouldn't be surprised if it's in there somewhere.

Jim Walker has made the point that how this all plays out will depend on what the community makes of it. Nevertheless, I'd be wary of building in harsh rules and trusting the community not to enforce them.

Where to go from here? Obviously we need to get these documents reviewed by as many people as possible as soon as possible. Then we need to figure out how to get Catellus to put them on hold while prospective residents can get organized to propose changes. The only forum I see for discussing this (other than the comments in my little blog!) is the Mueller Redevelopment group at Yahoo. I encourage anyone with an interest these issues or in Mueller in general to join that list.

Does anyone know a good dirt lawyer interested in pro bono neighborhood work? Or a city council member who might raise a fuss?

causes 2007.03.13 link

Comments

For those of you who've just tuned in, I should maybe point out that this post is a followup to another one on other HOA nightmares as well as my recent obsessive string of posts on Mueller.

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2007.03.13
Good work reviewing the details. I don' t think a HOA has the right to ban political signs, but bans on other kinds of signs are pretty standard.

I had thought Mueller was going to include combined business/residence buildings. Surely a business could show a sign?

Jim Howard [grayraven42 cxe gmail punkto com] • 2007.03.13
Jim, thanks for the correction on the matter of political signs. I could swear that I heard of a recent Supreme Court case ruling that HOAs are not governments and not subject to constitutional protections on speech if homeowners sign away their rights. However, a brief search doesn't turn up any such case so maybe I'm dreaming it.

Apparently the matter has historically been dealt with by state as opposed to federal law, which complicates matters. A recent New Jersey ruling determined that in that state, HOAs are subject to free-speech provisions in the state constitution.

In Texas, a 2005 law says that HOAs cannot prohibit electoral political signs, i.e., signs for a candidate or proposition currently on the ballot. If the article I linked to is correct, there is no protection in Texas law for signs regarding an issue such as the war, or religious displays, or for that matter a sign supporting your kid's basketball team.

As for businesses, of course the rules for the commercial areas are different. The documents I link to above are not the entire set covering all of Mueller. I don't know whether the eventual live/work spaces will be treated as residential, commercial or have their own rules.

If it were up to me, I'd say that Austin should require every new HOA covenant to acknowledge that it is subject to all protections of the US and Texas constitutions as though it were a government entity.

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2007.03.13
Jim Walker is too compromised by his position to be objective on this issue, I think - I'm as concerned as you are or much more - this is a ridiculous set of restrictions - and any claim that relies on a reasonable HOA board falls flat on its face as most end up NOT being reasonable.

Besides, this is supposed to be a society based on "rule of law, not rule of men", so I instinctively view claims like his as un-American.

M1EK [mdahmus cxe io punkto com] • 2007.03.13
M1ek, thanks for adding a touch of bile for seasoning to this generally bile-reduced blog. :-)

To anyone who doesn't know me and M1ek, let me stress what I shouldn't have to say, that commenters on this blog speak for themselves and not for me.

So far in my limited interaction with the community process around Mueller, it seems to me that most players want the best for everybody. It's true that a few design compromises happened because of the inevitable conservatism of neighborhood associations. (Muellerites whose kids attend Maplewood Elementary will no doubt curse every time they're forced to take a left at Aldrich and Airport, but if you lived on Wilshire, would you want it any other way?) Given what I'm learning about HOAs, I'll take the relative flexibility of an old-school neighborhood association over the lawn nazis of a subdivision HOA any time.

I do agree with your point about the rule of law. A conflict with an HOA can literally lose you your house. That's far too much power to hang on undefined terms like "attractive".

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2007.03.13
It's the "remedies" that the HOA would have to fix their problem with you that's most disconcerting.

It's specifically stated that once you have refused to pay a lien, you can be foreclosed upon. When that happens, the HOA itself(!) has the right to purchase your home at foreclosure and resell it.

Imagine the ramifications for units that started out as affordable housing.

Marcus Sanford [marcus cxe msanford punkto com] • 2007.03.13
One scary thing about HOA's is that the covenants can be considered a "private contract" between the HOA and the homeowner. This gives the HOA a way to stomp on your civil and property rights as an American citizen and you, having voluntarily signed the contract, are obligated to follow the contract or be subject to the legal remedies the HOA sees fit to employ. So far State laws providing Homestead protection haven't stood up to HOA onslaughts so I wonder if the political sign one will fall as well.
Statistically, only 70% of homeowners will be happy with their HOA. Which isn't bad, but how would you like to be one of the unhappy 30% who gets harrassing letters and fines for a few dandelions in the yard? Or in my case, invisible dandelions that appeared (in February!) soon after I signed a public petition for Texas HOA reform and sent letters to my Reps.
HOAS are a lawyers banquet and a homeowners poison...My advice to all of you is to run away now and buy a home without an HOA, or with a voluntary one. It is too big an investment to risk being one of the unhappy 30%.

Tree • 2007.06.01
Regarding number of resident, I recall seeing (quite some years ago) that some clause in the Texas constitution defined "a person" as "one or more real persons", thus technically negating the limits in any rental agreement. However, with the power you folks say a HOA has, such a technical nit wouldn't matter much.

William Watson [wjw cxe alumni punkto rice punkto edu] • 2007.07.21
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