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Flag Man Refuses to Strike Colors

Former Marine could lose his house in a losing battle over ban by his homeowners association

October 05, 2003|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

JUPITER, Fla. — Once again the phone is ringing, this time with a radio station from Kalamazoo, Mich., on the other end. With an apology, George Andres hoists himself from his recliner and trots barefoot to the bedroom to give yet another interview.

Five years ago, the former electrician and Marine Corps private first class planted a flagpole on the front lawn of the two-bedroom townhouse where he lives with his wife of 42 years, and hoisted Old Glory.

What ensued has arguably made the mustachioed retiree the most celebrated resident of this small, suburban Palm Beach County municipality.

The 66-year-old Brooklyn native insists on his right to fly the Stars and Stripes from the flagpole in his yard, a practice the local homeowners association claims violates its rules.

To enforce its regulations -- which it says govern installation of the flagpole rather than flying the flag -- the association took Andres to court. So far, it seems to be the victor.

Andres said he had appeared before judges at least 28 times and piled up an estimated $40,000 in attorney's bills, though his current lawyer was working for free.

In a three-day trial, the association won its lawsuit against Andres and his flagpole, and slapped a lien on his residence to recuperate its own legal fees.

Because he won't take down the pole and pay $25,000 to cover the association's expenses as well as court fines for noncompliance with the verdict, Andres could lose his residence. Last month, a Palm Beach circuit judge ruled Andres' home may be sold at foreclosure, though the same judge later granted Andres a reprieve from an Oct. 9 auction so he could appeal.

Andres vows to keep his 3-by-5-foot all-weather flag, which he illuminates at night, flying no matter what happens. (In fact, he notes with an impish grin, he has even installed a taller aluminum flagpole, one measuring 19 feet, 6 inches versus the original 12 feet.)

"I've spent a lot of money to protect that flag," Andres said. "I'm risking losing my home. It means a lot to me. My wife agrees."

In its simplest, stripped-down version, his story has become the outrageous tale of a former Marine who may forfeit his home for flying the flag of the country he has served, and Andres has told it to many print and broadcast media, including radio stations in the Los Angeles area.

An offended Lou Dobbs of CNN expressed astonishment that such a thing could happen in America. On the Fox News Channel, conservative commentator Sean Hannity offered to help raise any money Andres might need.

Last year, the Florida Legislature passed a law, signed by Gov. Jeb Bush, that was supposed to help Andres, though a state judge subsequently ruled that it didn't void the lien on his home. The new law stipulates that any Floridian may fly an American flag "in a respectful manner," regardless of any homeowners association restrictions to the contrary.

On Flag Day last year, Jeb Bush showed up on the winding Jupiter street where the single-story Andres home is located to present the homeowner with an American flag and a check for $100. Bush also took off his green necktie with flag motifs and handed it to Andres.

"Here's a veteran who just wants to fly his flag," said Bush, according to news reports. "This looks like a great neighborhood. These people need to take a deep breath on Flag Day and just let him fly his flag."

Lawyer Steve Selz, who represents the Indian Creek Phase III-B Homeowners Assn., admits the association's public image has become about as unfavorable as that of Osama bin Laden's cousin. But Selz says many people, including Florida's Republican governor and some of the national media, don't seem to understand the case, or may not want to.

"It's not about the flag," said the Palm Beach attorney. "It's about the pole. And it's about Mr. Andres' unwillingness to live by the rules that everyone else lives by."

Association restrictions, which are accepted by homeowners when they buy a property, require residents of the subdivision to apply for permission to make exterior additions like a flagpole, said Selz. Andres, said the lawyer, didn't follow those rules.

"We're not trying to get him to take down the flag, but the pole," Selz said. If Andres wants to fly the flag, he can do it from a pole mounted on his house like other residents, added the lawyer.

Inside the 850-square-foot home that George and Ann Andres share with an attention-craving Chihuahua and elephant-themed tchotchkes collected by Mrs. Andres, George produces a photocopy of the homeowners association rules and points out they make no explicit mention of flagpoles.

In the climate of galvanized love of country that has followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it's a safe bet that many people don't care what the fine print on the Andres deed might be. When "Good Morning America" did a report this month on the Jupiter retiree known locally as "the flag man," words of support came from as far away as a U.S. military base in Asia.

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