When Shirley Thompson bought her home in the Ashton Commons community two years ago, she had no idea what she was in for. She discovered numerous property code violations, lax enforcement by the homeowners’ association (HOA), and safety hazards.
When the HOA manager refused to fix the problems, she took her complaints to various county agencies, state officials, and most recently, to an attorney. So far, none of her problems have been resolved.
|A makeshift kitchen in a garage. [Photo by Shirley Thompson]|
Ashton Commons, on Little River Turnpike in Mason District east of Annandale, has just 28 townhomes.
The common areas are dirty, muddy, and overgrown, Thompson says; there is barbed wire and wood stacked up on a back fence. The HOA fails to cite homeowners for leaving overflowing trash cans in their front yards and construction debris in their driveways or keeping bicycles tied to trees in front yards. At one point, she says, a resident left a mattress and box spring in front of a house for two weeks.
“Nothing here has been done right,” she says” The HOA is not living up to its fiduciary responsibility.”
Ashton Commons HOA President Candace Klimek declined an opportunity speak about these issues, and Kathy Simonovich, president of the HOA’s management company, Service First Management and Consulting (SFMC), did not respond to a request for comment.
Lack of streetlights
The biggest problem for Thompson is the lack of streetlights, which poses safety risks. While walking at night, she was once approached by a strange man and another time fell on an icy sidewalk. It’s hard for drivers to see pedestrians walking at night, she says, and once a man walked into the wrong house because he couldn’t see where he was going.
Thompson says the darkness aggravates the PTSD she’s been dealing with as a former Air Force flight nurse in Iraq. She lives with a service dog and is working on getting a medical discharge from the Public Health Service.
|Trash strewn all over a homeowner's yard. [Shirley Thompson]|
Thompson has complained about the streetlight problem to the HOA, SFMC, and county officials and submitted a formal complaint in January to the Office of the Common Interest Community Ombudsman, the Virginia state government department responsible for deal with these sorts of disputes.
When she purchased her home, Thompson said the HOA president told her that streetlights would be installed within the year. She later learned that there are no such plans.
Part of the problem, she says, is that Ashton Commons is subject to a Fairfax County bond, “which I learned limits us from having streetlights installed. Had I known this information prior to purchasing my home, I would not have made this investment.” The landscaping company hired by the builder, NV Homes, went into default, so the county retained the bond funds to complete the work.
A letter to Thompson from Aaron Frank, former land use specialist in Mason Supervisor Penny Gross’ office confirms that streetlights won’t be provided: “The Ashton Commons subdivision is a developer default project, which remains bonded with the county,” it states. “The county may not require installation of streetlights prior to bond release, as this was not part of the initial plan and the installation of streetlights is not planned.”
A streetlight was installed on Little River Turnpike, but Thompson says three more lights are needed to illuminate the interior streets – and that would cost at least $100,000. At a meeting with the HOA president last July, Gross suggested that the HOA apply for grant funding, from Dominion or other entities, to help pay for streetlights.
“If a developer told her streetlights would be installed, it’s not the HOA’s fault that they weren’t,” said Don Hinman, chair of the Association Services Committee at the Fairfax Federation of Citizens Associations.
When Hinman was on the HOA board for Huntington Grove Square, a townhouse development with just 40 units in Alexandria, he said the community looked into installing streetlights about 10 years ago but determined it would have been too costly, requiring a big monthly fee increase or special assessment.
Rules not enforced
Another problem cited by Thompson – inappropriate trees in front of the houses (silver maples and sycamores) that will grow too large and damage the foundations and underground water mains. An arborist she consulted with agreed that smaller trees should have been planted, but the HOA has not followed up.
|Construction debris [Shirley Thompson]|
Thompson also complained that the HOA is failing to enforce parking rules. The 22 parking spots for guests are often taken by residents who using their garages for storage, she says. She notes that some residents are operating business out of their homes and renting rooms to boarders. One resident set up an unsafe makeshift kitchen in a garage using a propane tank.
Last summer, she complained to the Fairfax County Health Department about an infestation of mosquitoes and was told the problem was caused by standing water in outdoor flower pots and too-tall grass.
Thompson also believes the HOA should be following up with the county to make sure things like a faulty stormwater system are fixed. “I don’t feel like they’re fighting for us,” she says.
While those problems have remained unaddressed, Thompson says SFMC sent her a “notice of covenant violation” for trimming trees in her backyard, which she believes is retaliation for her complaints.
Meanwhile, Thomas says the HOA is overpaying for maintenance services, isn’t letting her see its budget or other documents, and doesn’t have adequate meeting minutes. And, she says, the same people have been repeatedly re-elected as HOA officers,
“I expect the board to do its job,” she says. “The board is not complying with the rules and regulations.” All these problems “bring the neighborhood down and bring property values down.”
Proving that an HOA is incompetent is “can be pretty difficult,” says Heather Gillespie, the common interest community ombudsman. A homeowner would have to actually show that the HOA is violating Virginia’s Property Owners Association Act or the HOA’s own governing documents. Instances of HOAs committing fraud happens “very rarely,” she adds.
When Hinman was on the Huntington Grove Square HOA board, there were disputes with residents – usually dealing with disagreements over architectural changes. “In any group there is always going to be a conflict that needs to be addressed,” he says.
“With small communities, it’s hard to get people to run” for HOA board positions, Hinman says. “Only a few people are willing to serve, so they usually get re-elected.” Board meeting minutes “tend to be skeleton documents, only recording actual votes, not notes on discussions.”
“HOA boards are supposed to be transparent and should provide budgets, minutes, bylaws, and other official documents to homebuyers,” he says. “It’s pretty rare for an HOA not to do that.” HOA boards are also required by law to have a complaint procedure.
He advises homeowners who have conflicts with an HOA to try to meet their neighbors, discuss the issues, form an informal committee, go to board meetings, and express their concerns. If people are unsure whether an HOA is acting appropriately, they should review the code of ethics published by the Community Associations Institute.