When police found 78-year-old Lucy DeAbreu in her Dana Point condominium, her face had been pummeled so badly that she couldn't speak clearly. The petite widow had to slowly spell the name of her attacker: M-I-N-E-O.
Charles Mineo and DeAbreu were neighbors in a tidy ocean-view complex favored by retirees and weekend sojourners. Mineo, a 47-year-old accountant, was angry at his homeowners association because it had penalized him for an unauthorized addition to his unit. One afternoon two years ago, he lashed out at DeAbreu, an association board member.
For as long as there have been condominiums and private subdivisions, residents and their homeowners associations have quarreled over parking issues, lawn ornaments, untidy backyards and how much to pay the pool cleaner.
The violence in DeAbreu's case was exceptional, but increasingly residents are lashing out at their homeowners associations with threatening letters, vandalism and in some cases guns, residents and property managers say.
Each year, an estimated 175,000 homeowners association disputes end up in lawsuits or complaints to government agencies, according to the California Law Revision Commission. The commission last year recommended the state form an agency to serve as a clearinghouse for residents' complaints and dispense advice to homeowners and board members. The Legislature is considering the proposal.
"There is a lot of pent-up frustration," said Brian Hebert, an attorney with the commission.
City and county zoning laws and noise ordinances limit what homeowners can do with their property. But in private communities, the rules can be much more restricting. Associations can cite a resident for painting her house the wrong color, leaving the trash can out for too long or not mowing the front lawn.
In San Jose last year, a family was cited by the homeowners association for leaving a discarded freezer in the backyard, which was visible from common areas. The resident wrote a letter, accusing board members of "Nazi Gestapo Communist KGB tactics" and vowing, "If you don't crawl back into your little corners and leave us alone ... you will pay ... just try me!"
The California Assn. of Community Managers last year gathered several examples, including the San Jose incident, to drive home the point that conflicts in homeowners associations can quickly become dangerous.
"People in homeowners associations have slashed tires, they've broken windows ... residents have brought guns and knives to board meetings," said Karen Conlon, the state association's president. "We have looked at and will probably pursue courses in mediation skills for our members, in people skills. At the same time we want to give things that may help our managers recognize some dangerous situations."
Konlon and others say part of the problem is that such homeowner conflicts often become very personal. Unlike laws, which are enforced by nameless, faceless government bureaucrats, homeowners association rules are enforced by neighbors.
"After family, the two most important things to people are probably home and money, and often your home is your most valuable asset," said David F. Feingold, a San Rafael attorney who has represented homeowners associations for nearly two decades. "Now you've got a neighbor, who is an untrained volunteer, in charge. Conflicts are almost inevitable."
Feingold once represented a Napa County homeowners association that sought a restraining order against a resident. The man, who had a long-running dispute with his community board, confronted the property manager one afternoon demanding to see a list of residents.
"At the time," Feingold said of the 2001 incident, "the law said you have to state the reason in writing, and the manager told him so. The man pulled a loaded gun and said, 'Is this reason enough?' "
The manager did not budge, and the man left without the list. But the police were called, and the homeowner was arrested, Feingold said. His guns were later confiscated by authorities and the resident prohibited from going into the management office, although he continued to live in the neighborhood.
"When these disputes escalate, there has been a buildup of resentment," Feingold said. "I've been to numerous [homeowners board meetings] where I felt that people were about to come to blows."
That's exactly what happened in a Marin County homeowners association five years ago. "A homeowner and the board president shared a common wall and had a dispute about their back patios," Feingold said. "They ended up in a fistfight rolling down a hill. The board president, who was an older gentleman, had a minor heart attack. Litigation ensued."
Some homeowners turn to lawyers, but quickly find they're costly. They also find that most attorneys with expertise in the field represent associations.