They're a curse when you want to build an addition or change the color of your house, and a blessing when the guy next door wants to raise pit bulls under your bedroom window. They alienate neighbors and keep lawyers happy, yet at the same time preserve the character of the neighborhood you found attractive enough to buy into.
Homeowners associations and the codes, covenants, and restrictions they enforce have increasingly become a part of our neighborhoods and the way we live.
Chances are, if you buy a home in North County, you buy into a homeowners association as well. Though, says attorney Harry Olsen, you may not understand all the ramifications when you sign on the dotted line.
"I find the majority of new home owners aren't aware that: One, they're in a homeowner association, and two, they're subject to architectural controls and bylaws," said the Vista attorney who represents both homeowners and developers involving homeowners associations.
Even if your CC&Rs have been in effect for decades and the rule book comes gift-wrapped, you probably won't get past the first "whereas."
"A covenant document is a lot like the instruction booklet you get when you buy a new appliance," said Rea Mowery, a former manager of the Rancho Santa Fe Assn. "You throw it in a drawer until something goes wrong."
So many problems are cropping up with homeowners associations that community colleges are offering courses on understanding and running them.
"People are thrown into this experiment in democracy where they're forced to live and work together in a community," said Olsen, who teaches one of the classes at MiraCosta College. "So there's often a lot of stress and strain, and sometimes antagonism."
With or without CC&Rs, suing and squabbling have been going on for centuries. At least as far back as the Middle Ages, neighbors generally loved to quarrel, fight, slander, and sue each other, according to historians Frances and Joseh Gies.
It's all just more codified today.
Each homeowner association operates a little differently. Here is a look at how three in North County work: Rancho Santa Fe, Del Mar Highlands in North City West and Silver Saddle Ranch in Poway.
RANCHO SANTA FE
Association established: 1928
Number of homes: 1,653
CC&Rs: 51 pages
Annual fee: Based on assessed value of home, averages about $1,000
Rancho Santa Fe has what may be the granddaddy of CC&Rs in North County. The 62-year-old covenant document was set up by an itinerant city planner who developed almost identical arrangements for communities such as Shaker Heights, Ohio, Montecito (near Santa Barbara), and Palos Verdes in the 1920s.
Its stipulations for preserving the rural character of the 10-square-mile community were farsighted, but according to former association manager Rea Mowery, it took some time for residents to take them seriously.
"Back in the old days few people followed the covenant," recalled Mowery. "Residents would sit around the table and say 'I want to do this or that.' And the answer (from the homeowners board) would be, 'Oh go ahead, have fun and do it.' "
It wasn't until the mid-1960s when a hard-nosed association manager came on the scene that the covenant was put to the test.
"He followed the letter of the law, and made a lot of locals mad," remembers Mowery. "He didn't give a minute to the good-old-boy situation."
Today the association--under its manager and staff--oversees its golf and tennis clubs, private security force, and parks and playing fields.
Its board of administrators, made up of seven elected residents, uphold the bylaws, and has the clout to slap an injunction against an illegal addition or modification. More than one homeowner has had to dismantle a clandestine wing or guest house under court order.
A board-appointed art jury of five members issues building, landscaping, and grading permits, and makes sure that nothing too exotic gets built on the eucalyptus-lined streets.
Theoretically, architectural styles are limited to California Ranch, Monterey, Mexican and Hispanic-Mediterranean. But a stark contemporary, a Southern Colonial, or an English Tudor have cropped up here and there, due to the interpretations of the ever-changing art jury.
"Some art jurors have held the philosophy that people ought to do what they want when they want with their property," said another former association manager, George Parrish. "Just as long as it doesn't impinge upon their neighbors."
Others take a more hard-line approach, which irks some residents. Like Bert Parks.
The blue shuttered, pink stucco Mediterranean house of the Miss America patriarch was viewed as out of character with the covenant a few years back. Parks and his wife, Annette, were asked to tone down the colors. They complied, but Parks thinks the art jury was a little unjustified.
"Sometimes they go a little overboard," he said. "This is a Mediterranean house, and I think it's a gorgeous color combination. It isn't garish. It isn't out of character."