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BLOCK DIPLOMACY : A new homeowners association board of directors tries to bring a community together but finds that laying down the law is not always easy.

BIRTH OF A NEIGHBORHOOD: One in a series, once in a while.

February 07, 1991|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The topic was speed bumps.

"Nobody," said Michael Morlan, "likes speed bumps."

But nobody likes traffic tragedies or lawsuits, either, Morlan warned his colleagues on the board of the Tierras Homeowners Assn. Speed bumps might prevent those.

Around the clubhouse, half a dozen homeowners sprang to attention. One backed bumps; another decried them. A third proposed a mid-block stop sign, and both sides hooted him down.

Morlan, an attorney who was elected to the board just three weeks before, watched uneasily. To his left at the paper-strewn table sat board President Jon LeConey, an assistant restaurant manager with equal inexperience in neighborhood politics. LeConey opposed speed bumps. What to do?

So sounded the first stirrings of self-government in Camarillo's newest community, eight months after its first home sales, not quite four months after the arrival of its first homeowners.

The territory at stake was modest: Vista Arriago, a looping hilltop street in the shadow of the Ventura Freeway, will never house more than 48 homeowners. Via Montanez, site of the proposed bumps, and the two other neighboring streets include just 25 more properties.

But politics were inevitable. Community association democracies, widening their constituency with the opening of every new housing tract and condominium complex, now empower and entangle an estimated 3.6 million Californians. And this winter, as the residents of Vista Arriago contemplated war and recession--and waited for someone to buy the other half of the neighborhood's houses--speed-bump politics were one of the block's few signs of life.

There were several young couples, but no children. At Christmastime, there were only scattered wreaths and lights. In the days after the United States began its war with Iraq, there were no flags, no yellow ribbons, no protest posters. There was briefly a hand-scrawled sign on a lawn--"Please pick up after your dog"--but the gusts of mid-January blew it away. Sheriff's deputies recalled no crime reports. Of the 48 houses on the street, 22 were occupied.

"I don't feel that it's taken on any real identity as a neighborhood. But I think that's coming," June Hillman said a few days before the Dec. 19 speed-bump debate. Neither Hillman nor her husband, Ira, made it to that meeting.

Nor did housemates Janette Wong and Carole McCluskey up the street, who were putting their energy into home improvement. They built a fence in the side yard, set up a woodworking shop, an office and shelves in the garage, rearranged the master bedroom closet and built a bookcase for the living room. In the back yard, they hung a bird feeder.

"I've kind of gotten over some of the bitterness I had when I first moved in," said McCluskey, a first-time buyer frustrated by lengthy paperwork and multiple negotiations.

But she and Wong could easily find themselves caught in community association politics. Their many improvements to the garage have made it a difficult fit for a car. Their driveway is too short for comfortable parking. And homeowners association rules forbid parking on the street.

"So we're sort of in a dilemma," McCluskey said. "And we're thinking we might try to convince the other people on the street into making it a one-way street and allowing parking on one side of the street."

But that would reroute a lot of traffic onto a street maintained by Palmeras, the development next door. The Tierras Homeowners Assn. might be intrigued by that idea, but the Palmeras Homeowners Assn. probably wouldn't.

It wasn't until 1828, 198 years after the arrival of John Winthrop and his pilgrims, that a few of their descendants convened North America's first homeowners association in Louisburg Square, Boston.

The Vista Arriago homeowners, who lay out $163 in association fees along with their monthly mortgage payments, endured no such delay. From the start, they yielded control of vegetation in their front yards, accepted bans on unleashed dogs and cats, and pledged not to ride their mopeds, skateboards, bicycles and motorcycles off the street. They would not dive, eat or smoke in the communal spa. A back-yard swing set would require architectural committee approval. Horseplay around the pool was out of the question.

"The community living concept has gained great favor in recent years," the thick Tierras homeowners handbook noted, "as a means of conserving and improving the quality of the living environment in residential areas."

Having a homeowners association, said the handbook, means a chance "to ensure that the physical quality of your residential neighborhood will be preserved, and even enhanced, over the years. It also means that you have an opportunity to influence the quality of community life around you."

It can mean a lot more than that. To Jan Hickenbottom of Thousands Oaks, former president of the Community Assns. Institute's Los Angeles chapter and condominium-dwellers advice columnist for The Times, it means this:

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