Homeowners Penitentiary

Residents liken their gated community to prison

Photo by Matt OttoOne of the strangest episodes in the history of The X-Files television series begins with a young couple who has just bought a home in a gated community in Southern California where all the houses look the same. The unsuspecting pair sticks a plastic pink flamingo in their front yard. Before the first commercial break, they're eaten alive by an asphalt monster that rises from their street. The monster is an evil, omniscient force whose mission is to cleanse the community of anyone with a personality.

For Chris, a cop who asked that we not use his last name, and his wife, Terri, a special-education teacher, that monster is the Alipaz Community Association.

The monster first contacted them in a letter dated Oct. 4, 2002, just a few months after they moved to Alipaz, an upscale, gated community in San Juan Capistrano. The letter concerned a handful of droplet-sized oil stains in the middle of their driveway. "It has been observed on a property inspection that you need to remove the oil stains from your driveway," the letter stated. "You may not be aware that this is in non-compliance with your association's governing documents."

Unless the couple could prove "extenuating circumstances" justifying the presence of the offending oil stains, the letter added, they had to remove them within 15 days. Chris said he thought the letter was weird, since you'd have to be standing right in the middle of his driveway to even see the oil stains, which he hadn't actually noticed himself. "It's true we have an older car," he said. "But there's no such thing as a car that doesn't have some kind of drip. These stains were the size of a penny. But we cleaned it up anyway."

End of story? Hardly. Chris and Terri quickly discovered that nothing escapes the careful eye of the Alipaz Community Association.

One neighbor received a warning for allowing the grass in his front yard to grow a few inches too high. A woman across the street received a letter asking her to remove the flower vase in her front window because it was visible from the street. Another friend got a warning because of two small wooden Tiki statues in front of his garage. A family who wanted to sell their home received a citation from the association for having a for-sale sign in their front yard that didn't meet the community's standards.

The pettiness continued. Although their neighborhood has a small grassy area that the association refers to as a "park," Chris says neighbors yell at children when they play there. No bicycles or skateboards are permitted anywhere in the neighborhood. Several months after he moved in, the board went over the objections of the majority of the residents to approve an expensive new security service that tickets and tows vehicles that park on the street.

Ray Castro, who lives across the street from Chris and Terri, was cited for having an inflatable swimming pool in his driveway that was only partially visible from the street. "So we removed it," Castro said. "But a warning was put on our record, and we found out that there was no expiration to the warning. This summer, I was going to put the pool in the back yard, and I had it in my driveway for less than 48 hours. I got a second warning. I had a two-foot-high plastic fence in my driveway to keep my kids from running into the street and got a warning for that, too. When I said the fence was to protect my kids, they told me they shouldn't be playing in the driveway."

In May 2003, Chris and Terri got in trouble with the association for installing an attractive-looking wrought-iron screen door on the front of their house. They didn't buy just any screen door; they selected one with swirls that matched the design on the metal gate at the entrance to their community. "There are no windows that open in the front of our houses," Chris said. "Our daughter has a respiratory problem, and we installed the screen door to provide better ventilation."

After receiving a warning to remove the door, Chris obtained a doctor's note asking the association to "please allow" them to keep the screen door. He gave the doctor's note to the association, which promptly sent him another note saying the door had to go—and he had to pay a $75 fine. Chris and Terri appealed that decision, but he was unable to attend his hearing because of a work conflict. When he missed the meeting, the association demanded he pay a $225 fine and get rid of the door.

"We had a doctor's note, but the association doesn't care," Chris said. "At an association meeting, I asked if we go to Home Depot and buy $20 worth of flowers, do we have to get permission from the board before we plant them? The answer was yes, we need prior approval."

"I've been getting harassed as much as anyone," said another resident who asked to remain anonymous out of fear that speaking out will only attract more unfriendly attention from the Alipaz Community Association. "The board really needs to wake up. They're here to raise property values, but if anything, they are lowering property values."

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