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Flag Battle Not So Proudly Hailed

Patriotic gesture or just advertising? A flap over Old Glory divides, and embarrasses, Claremont neighbors.

July 19, 2006|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

People in Nancy Telford's hillside development above Claremont know that she's a top Century 21 real estate agent, ranked sixth in the nation and a proud Million Dollar Club award winner for high sales.

They know it because around each Fourth of July weekend, she and her Realtor husband, Tom, place hundreds of white and yellow business cards touting her work affixed to small plastic American flags on her neighbors' front lawns in the upscale Claraboya neighborhood.

"We did it to beautify the hill," Telford said. "Our neighbors stop us all the time to thank us. We're just being patriotic for the Fourth of July."

But Steven Llanusa did not think so. The board president of the Claraboya Homeowners Assn. believed that the flags were just dressed-up advertising that violated the association's codes, covenants and restrictions.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 22, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
American flags: An article in Wednesday's Section A about the controversy over flags placed on front lawns by a real estate agent in Claremont said the Claremont Courier was a weekly newspaper. It is published twice a week.

And when Telford and her husband refused to take the flags down, he marched along the streets of Claraboya, snatching up the flags and tossing them into a trash bin.

His actions have divided Claremont, prompting investigations by the police after residents reported that their flags had been stolen. Others told authorities that he violated a federal law by not disposing of the flags properly. Some in the community have called him unpatriotic. The debate has been playing out for two weeks and shows few signs of cooling down.

"It's pretty embarrassing. I'd like to think Claremont is a little more cosmopolitan," said Martin Mudal, as he ate lunch in the city's downtown shopping district. "It's so petty."

Claraboya has a different feel than Claremont's funky downtown and rows of rambling Craftsman homes that surround the city's famous colleges. It's a modern luxury development set in the hills to the north, with supreme views from the foothills to as far as Catalina Island. Homes sell for as much as $2 million.

The Telfords contend that their flag distribution is nothing different than what thousands of real estate agents do on Independence Day. They even bought the flags from a company that supplies agents (the flag's pole has space for the agents to place their business cards).

"People were calling us and asking if we could give them another flag," said Tom Telford, 50. "The business card is so small, you can't see it from the street. How is that an advertisement?"

After Llanusa took down the flags, residents filed 10 theft claims with the Claremont Police Department and also suggested that he violated federal law. (The U.S. Code states that flags no longer fit for display "should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.")

Police detectives said they planned to send their findings to the district attorney, who will decide whether to file charges. Prosecutors have offered to have a mediator meet with the two sides before taking action.

But the Telfords and their supporters weren't satisfied with just notifying police. They quickly distributed leaflets to their neighbors titled, "A Sad Day in Claraboya."

The leaflet said that neighbors found Llanusa's actions unpatriotic and asked residents to recall Llanusa from the homeowners association board.

"We would expect the president of our association to focus his time more wisely to help protect our views and maintain our values on the hill," read the leaflet.

Llanusa, 46, said he was taken aback by the response. Yet he said he does not regret doing what he did, stressing that he was enforcing the homeowner association's ban on advertisements as he does for any business. He said that he had asked the couple not to place the flags the previous two years.

But in the wake of the controversy, he purchased 72 cloth flags and is offering them to anyone who wants a replacement. So far, he has given out eight, most of them to residents in an adjacent neighborhood that's not bound by Claraboya's homeowners association rules. (Llanusa said he mistakenly took their flags along with the others.)

Llanusa is a parent and was elected last year to the Claremont Unified School District's Board of Education. He said he is offended by suggestions that he is unpatriotic.

"I made contributions to the local elementary school with pencils that had state names on them," Llanusa said. "I helped design the costumes for the Revolutionary [War] play that fifth graders did."

Llanusa said his dispute with the Telfords is only about the flags, though he added: "There have been many complaints about the garishness of the Hummer."

That would be the Telfords' Hummer, which has a tropical beachfront airbrushed on half of its body below the Telfords' real estate information. The homeowners association had deemed the vehicle fit several years ago after some had suggested that it was a form of illegal advertising.

Stephen Hammitt, who has lived in Claraboya for 25 years, said he was outraged when his flag was removed and believes that Llanusa took the homeowners association rules too far.

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