mine: Keeping Covenant with My Neighbor
published as: Covenants Not So Neighborly

A house is one of the biggest investments a person can make. There are many professionals and officials who will advise us on ways to protect the investment such as shopping wisely, getting insurance, and making repairs. At the signing, we get all this paperwork about legal title, points, and payments.

But for the majority of us who only own one at a time, a house is also a home, an abode for our family, and an integral piece of a functional neighborhood. Unfortunately, there is far less advice on how to be a good neighbor. We never get any paperwork on balancing investment decisions with friendliness or what sort of financial loss we should accept in return for community. If given this stark choice, I believe most people would choose to be neighborly. But when problems arise in new subdivisions or in old ones that haven't jelled into communities, instead of talking, people often read their CC&Rs to see who's in violation.

Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions are documents governing what people can and cannot do on their property. Some regulate the color and size of buildings. Some regulate the type of landscaping or height of grass. Some regulate parking of cars on the street or even the parking of boats and RVs in your yard. They are written by developers and salespeople to convince buyers their new house in an incomplete subdivision will maintain its dollar value. Many covenants even expire after so many years and most of the restrictions only apply to new construction or unimproved lots. Yet the official language of CC&Rs fools us into thinking they are more important than the people next door.

In one subdivision, anonymous letters are mailed to offenders, an excellent way of sowing fear and discontent. In another subdivision, home owners are sending nasty letters, filing liens, and suing each other over various infractions. I certainly don't have the full story of even one issue (thankfully), but hear pieces from different people. It's all very rancorous and usually petty. One of the infractions is trespassing -- something clearly prohibited in the covenants and state and county laws. But these people have 2 1/2 acre lots so I suspect that particular issue is a secondary backlash against an earlier complainer.

Hopefully the feuds will calm, people will converse, and the subdivision will become a neighborhood. If not, we'll read about it in the paper over the years as simmering disagreements boil up into lawsuits, physical assaults, or other newsworthy unneighborly deeds.

I think the exacting legal language in covenants intimidates, turning ordinary humans into officious juggernauts. When I was voted into the Board of Directors of our Road Association, I reread the Covenants and the Articles of Incorporation very carefully. The specific duties and responsibilities of the Board and the Secretary (me) were clearly defined. So when discussing outstanding road dues, I assumed we'd file more liens because that was the written legal procedure. Fortunately, the Treasurer called people first and collected all the debts, some of them over two years old. He said no one had ever talked to any of those landowners. They'd just received Official Notices of Lien in the mail and had gotten understandably peeved.

After that, I took a different view, realizing I should only use the bureaucratic remedies as a last resort. My first few tries at solving problems are always neighbor to neighbor. I don't want to invest my money alongside Board Members, Registered Property Owners, and Plaintiffs. I want to live next door to people, community members, and neighbors.