A bitter fight over stormwater management and a duck pond shows what can go wrong with HOA covenants, which an expert calls “some of the strongest documents in our legal system.”
Read headlines in Kansas City for a while and you’re bound to see nasty fights involving Homeowners Associations.
Last year, homeowners in Lido Villas, a condominium community in Mission, had their texts and emails blocked after complaining about damage caused by rain rot. In February, stories popped up about homeowners in Tanglewood Lakes, about sixty miles south of the city, losing gate access because of “arbitrary” rules enforcement, leaving folks unable to return to their homes and effectively houseless. In March, the HOA in Overland Park’s Brookhighland subdivision came under intense scrutiny from community members after a mismanaged Airbnb rental was the site of a deadly shooting.
Most recently, Lee’s Summit subdivision Raintree Lake—previously involved in a lawsuit over the color of a swingset—was the site of a battle over ducks swimming in a stormwater pond built by residents during the pandemic.
While the Raintree Lake incident may seem like an inconsequential suburban scuffle, it reveals a larger issue with the power dynamics and relationship between HOAs and the homeowners they’re supposed to protect.
Lance Loewenstein, a local attorney whose practice centers on HOA fights, says that the rules and covenants that form an HOA are some of the strongest documents in our legal system because they usually require a supermajority vote to amend and “huge obstacles” to eliminate. Beyond that, those rules often allow the HOA to put a lien on the property and sell it in foreclosure for any amount due.
“Usually, the HOA definitely has the leverage because, ultimately, it can take your house away from you for unpaid fines and assessments,” Loewenstein says. He cautions home-buyers to look at the rules and “read with a fine tooth comb” before buying.
HOAs exist to better neighborhoods either through rules that maintain standards for beauty and upkeep or through amenities like communal spaces and community pools. Mat McKitterick, a board member for another Lee’s Summit HOA covering the Bridlewood neighborhood, says that HOAs can get a bad rap.
“I think that the reality of it is just keeping the neighborhood looking nice, which keeps the house values up—because if you have consistency, it’s good for everybody,” McKitterick says. “It actually will increase the value of the homes.”
The Raintree Lake scuffle shows what can happen when those rules go wrong, though. The situation started in the spring of 2020 when residents Cori Hulsey and Astacia Hauck decided to use their time in quarantine to tackle the flooding problem that the HOA had unsuccessfully tried to fix. Hulsey’s backyard had flooded after heavy rainstorms since she purchased her home in 2005.
“Year after year, we were told, ‘It’s not in the budget,’” Hulsey says, saying the HOA’s budget was instead diverted to holiday parties and bingo nights.
In 2019, residents dug an eight hundred-foot ditch to the lake to divert rainwater back into the lake rather than into their homes. After seeing the improved conditions after the ditch was dug, Hulsey and others proposed an additional beautification plan to the HOA, which would have cost other residents nothing.
“Instead of paying someone to fix the drainage issues properly, the HOA neglected the problem until their own residents were forced to take action,” Hauck says.
After the trench was dug and filled, a small wooden bridge was built to let residents cross. A sitting area with mulch and party lights was built and outfitted with a patio sofa, and a small wooden shed was built to house six ducks Hauck bought to battle the bugs.
The HOA board maintains that they initially granted permission to add rock and structure to reinforce run-off water flow to the lake but that they did not approve other community-led projects to the space—especially the ducks. On July 12, the HOA gave members of the community a sixty-day warning to clear out the space.
“They’re happy to accept our free labor, our donated plants and rocks and improvements we’ve made to the ditch to alleviate flooding,” Hauck says.
Over four hundred residents of Raintree Lake signed a petition to Missouri’s attorney general to assist them in their fight against their HOA and keep their community area and duck house. But in the meantime, they had to remove the duck house.
“It looks ugly and bare in the common ground now,” Hulsey says, and the HOA has done nothing to resolve the flooding situation.
“We still have the ducks,” Hulsey says. “We had to build something new for them under our deck. It’s been a mess.”