Sunday, August 24, 2008

HOAs: Oversite or Overrun?

I have friends from across the political spectrum. I play poker with a true libertarian; Thomas Paine’s “The government is best which governs least,” pretty much sums up his mantra. On the other side, an old car-pool buddy falls just short of Marx’s “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” My viewpoint falls somewhere within that vast chasm, depending on the day of the week and the price of gasoline at the pump.

But regardless of political leanings, one thing most of us agree on is that we’ve got more than enough layers of government in our lives. Federal, State, County, City. They should be able to get things done, right? Well maybe so, but we residents of Frisco – and most other modern suburban communities – voluntarily add an additional layer of civic oversite: the Home Owner’s Association. In fact, about 95% of Frisco homes lie within the bounds of an HOA. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they’re a fact of suburban life.

HOAs are usually created as a mechanism to fund and support the common areas in a neighborhood. When builders come in and divide up a plot of land, they like to add features such as pocket parks, green belts and those ubiquitous neighborhood pools, to make their homes more attractive to the buyers. Once the development is complete, someone has to take care of these features. So the builders form an HOA and pass along that responsibility to the future home owners.

HOAs are headed up by residents of the neighborhood and handle things like communication, deciding which flowers to plant and organizing neighborhood events. But the real power of the HOA lies in its bylaws, which are established when the HOA is formed and everyone who lives within the HOA agrees to live by. This includes not only the original members, but anyone who buys a home within that neighborhood any time in the future. Yet, many home buyers don’t bother to read these documents before they buy.

If you want to see what kind of control your HOA has, take a look at a document called the “Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions” or some variation thereof. Restrictions can range from what kind of trees, shrubs and landscaping you can use on your lot, up to what kind of buildings you can have in the back yard or what color you can paint your house. I was surprised to find that my HOA had the final say on what kind of shingles I could use to repair my roof. I’m sure my surprise was dwarfed by Jim Greenwood, a resident of Frisco’s Stonerbriar neighborhood – and presumably, a member of their HOA. He was notified that his HOA deemed his new Ford F-150 pickup truck as unsightly. The Lincoln Navigator up the street was okay. Even the Chevy Avalanche (go figure). But his “Texas Sports Car,” he was told, would have to be kept in the garage.

For a government agency – or HOA – to have an impact on your life, they have to have some control over what you do. Cities can fine you, tax you or throw you in jail. HOAs don’t have the last option, but they can certainly do the first two. They may not call it a “tax,” but your HOA dues are certainly a form of taking some of your hard-earned dollars and using it for the common good. That sounds like a tax to me. And fines are the tool of choice for HOAs to impose their will on residents. Is your yard getting a bit out of control? That’ll be fifty bucks. Haven’t painted in a while? $75, please. Late with your dues? Cha-ching. I’ve seen cases where fines and levies have added up to thousands of dollars. What happens if you don’t pay? Legal action is, of course, one option. But HOAs have a better tool. They file a lien against your property, effectively barring you from selling it until you pony up. In Texas, they even have the ability to foreclose on your home, though this power is rarely used.

The good news and bad news about HOAs is that the decision on how strictly to enforce the provisions of the CC&R documents lies in the aforementioned Board of Directors. These folks are usually elected by a pitiful minority of residents who show up for the annual elections. So it’s not hard for a small group of people to gain control of the board. In a recent example, a group of residents in the Frisco Fairways neighborhood exchanged some harsh words with their elected officials. Law suits and counter-suits were threatened and filed on both sides. Ultimately, they came to a settlement. But more interesting, some of the disgruntled residents ended up replacing existing board members at the next election. A perfect example of “if you don’t like your politicians, become one yourself.”

Which is, I guess, the point. Whether we’re talking about your local neighborhood, the city or the country, our system is built on the concept of citizens getting involved. Too often, people spend their time complaining about how the government did this, or the city didn’t do that or the HOA slapped a lien on my property. But too few actually step up to serve on their HOA board, or run for city council. Whatever your political philosophy, this fundamental concept is key. More government or less, it only works when you get involved.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Community Development is a Balancing Act

My wife, Mrs. Line, often reminds me that it never hurts to ask for something you want. So, in that spirit, I have the following request: Who would like to build a swimming pool in my back yard?

Now, before you make the meteoric leap to negativity laced with profane epithets, let me state my case. I’m a tax-paying citizen of Frisco. Getting to the existing public water park is just not convenient for me. So wouldn’t it be a valid use of our tax dollars to build an amenity I could more readily use? I certainly wouldn’t hog it. You can come over any time you like and take a dip!

Okay, that’s a bit absurd. So let’s change the equation. Who wants to build a pool for 90,000 of Frisco’s residents? Considering that there are around 100,000 folks that call Frisco home, that would certainly rise higher on the public’s “cost/benefit” calculator. In fact, I’d bet that most residents (and their elected representatives) would vote for a facility that served such a high percentage of the population. (And I’d win that bet, since just such an election led to the development of the new Athletic Center and its indoor/outdoor waterpark.)

Now let’s slide down the slippery slope. What if the pool only served 60,000 people? 20,000? How about 5,000? 20? You get the picture. Where is the magic number that says a public works project must serve X% of the population before we spend tax money on it?

This is far from an academic exercise. This is exactly the kind of decision that gets made – and often second-guessed – on a daily basis at all levels of government. As a member of Frisco’s Community Development Corporation board of trustees, I and my fellow board members are frequently called upon to make these kinds of calls. Should we fund the next community park on the west side of town or the east? Should we pay for more baseball fields, or divert the resources to soccer pitches? Do we want to spend tax dollars on a dog park or a skate park?

Each of these decisions comes down to balancing the cost against the amount of benefit city residents expect to receive. In the case of the ball fields, we can get a pretty good idea of the benefit (and demand) by looking at the participation in the Frisco Baseball and Softball Association, the Frisco Soccer League and other organizations. But when it comes to a skate park, how many teenage kids are likely to take advantage of such a facility? Are there enough dog owners to justify building them their own playground?

The CDC is responsible for investing a half a percent of every sales tax dollar in improvements for the city. We’re a primary source of funding the city uses to build community parks like Frisco Commons, Warren, Bacchus and the new B.F. Phillips. We talk a lot in our meetings about maintaining a “quality of life” in Frisco. Of course, that’s a difficult concept to define. The term “family friendly” comes up frequently, but given the wide variety of “families” in Frisco, even that’s not a touchstone we can easily get our arms around. You hate to boil every discussion down to a numbers game like the one I just described, but often that’s the only quantitative guideline available. And if you don’t think quantitative measurements are important in government, you haven’t been to a city council meeting lately, have you?

To assist us in our deliberations, the CDC is refining our decision criteria. We’ve outlined certain areas of focus that align with the City Council’s priorities for Frisco and will use these to guide us as investment opportunities come our way. We’ll be publishing more about that on the city web site in the coming months ( Of course, you’re also welcome to join us at our meetings on the third Thursday of every month and see just how we do things. With as much criticism as we hear on how tax dollars are spent, it’s disappointing how rarely people drop by to see us work. Take a look at the city web site to find the time and location of the next meeting and drop on by. We’d love to have you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll put together a pitch for the next city council meeting and see what I can do about getting my pool built. Hey, it never hurts to ask, right?