Agro Meets Urban Bliss
Towne Park residents say when it comes to fines, enough is enough
By Christie Chisholm
Did you park a little too close to the curb tonight? Or a little too far away? What? You don't remember? Well, if you live in Towne Park near Eubank and I-40, you better go out and check, or risk getting slapped with a fine. While you're at it, make sure your lawn is properly weeded, because those stragglers might just land you with another penalty. Oh, and when you go back inside, avoid using the garage door—opening that sucker for the wrong reason is another no-no.
While such a lifestyle isn't reality for most Albuquerque residents, for some residents in this gated community, the Towne Park Homeowners Association's board of directors is acting less like a benevolent authority figure and more like a gestapo.
Scott Varner, a longtime resident and founder of the Towne Park Neighborhood Association said that the board's tactics have gotten so out of hand, he's about ready to take them to court. But Evelyn Jensen, property manager for Towne Park, says that such accusations are exaggerated, and that rules are in place for a reason—mainly to ensure public safety and preserve property values.
Towne Park has never been an easy-go-lucky kind of community. Residents know when they buy a home that there are rigid standards everyone is supposed to live by. Standards like keeping a clean yard and a freshly painted house. Or making sure the trash container isn't left on the street for too long. But they don't generally expect socializing at the mailbox to be a violation of the neighborhood's rules. At least not until recently when, according to Varner, one woman was warned by a security guard about "loitering" when she was chatting with a neighbor as she thumbed through her junk mail.
Residents are certainly aware that there are standards and guidelines for living in Towne Park, which promotes itself for having a well-groomed façade and nonexistent crime. From the time Towne Park opened more than 20 years ago, it has maintained its level of prestige, which is exactly why residents pay a $140 monthly fee—about half of which goes to security and maintenance. However, last August, when Towne Park came under new management, neighborhood guidelines became more restrictive, said Varner. He added that newly enforced rules are achieving nothing more than a never-before reached level of frustration among residents.
Jan Couto agrees. Couto, who moved to Towne Park only a month and a half ago, says that moving day was the first time she encountered some of the strange guidelines. It began when she decided to park her moving van in the community overnight, so she could sleep for a few hours before unloading in the daylight. But right away she was told that this was unacceptable and was ordered to move the van across the street to Sam's Club. Apparently, she didn't get a permit for the vehicle from the board and therefore wasn't allowed to keep it on Towne Park grounds. After some amount of reasoning with the security guard, she was able to park it under the clubhouse spotlight.
But that was only the beginning. Within a week of moving in, Couto received a letter from the board claiming that her yard was "out of control" and that she had a week to bring it up to standard before she would be fined $160, in addition to being charged $20 an hour for someone to come and fix it. Because she was new, Couto was granted an extension of three weeks to fix her yard. Perplexed by the letter because she couldn't see anything wrong with her property, Couto asked Jensen to identify the problem. According to Couto, five or six weeds--less than an inch high sprouting out of the rock area by her driveway--were what the fuss was about. Confused, but obedient, Couto removed them, only to discover a second letter two weeks later asking her to remove leaves that had blown onto the rocks.
"I'm looking at this thing going you've got to be joking," said Couto. "You know, we've got winds going 35 miles an hour some days. I've got leaves on my rocks, you better believe it. Why is it such an important thing?"
But Jensen says getting a permit for the van is a simple process, and that she's never heard of someone being directed to Sam's Club to park. She also says that Couto's yard was weedier than she claims, and that the proposed fine was much less than $160. She adds that Couto was informed in her first letter to clean up the leaves on her rocks and was only sent the second letter when she failed to do so. "It's merely just a cause of action; [it's] not to make money off people," said Jensen.
Bob Sloan also has a Towne Park story. Sloan, who lived in the gated community from 1983 to 1993, and who now owns a rental there that he inherited from his mother, is concerned about another kind of fine. A renter's surcharge, which goes into effect in January 2006, is a $100 fee that will be tacked onto the monthly mortgage payment for homeowners who rent out their property. This outrages Sloan, who calculates that the existing 39 rental properties in the community will garner an additional $46,800 a year for the board—a number which he calls "unfair."
Sloan argues that the fee is unnecessary and ridiculous and says that rental properties shouldn't be treated differently than other homes. "It seems unAmerican to me," he said.
When Sloan went to a board meeting to ask why this new fine was going to be imposed, he claims the board wouldn't answer any of his questions. Instead, they simply responded by saying that it was voted on by community members and the matter was settled.
According to Jensen, the board received wide support from residents for the new surcharge. She said the extra fee every month would go toward maintaining the overall property values in the gated community and the money collected goes toward extra upkeep that rentals require, including the cost of printing letters that warn renters of rule violations.
Sloan, who builds custom homes for a living, said that he has talked to numerous real estate agents and mortgage brokers and hasn't been able to gather any proof to support the idea that rental homes are devaluing the neighborhood.
Additionally, Sloan believes that residents may have been misled, as many are older and living on fixed incomes, and were told by the board that having rental properties nearby devalued their own property. He said if the board won't listen to reason and discuss this issue with him and other rental property owners, he may soon take them to court.
"This can't be legal," Sloan said, "I feel like they're stealing my money."
Scott Varner said the rental surcharge and other fines—such as cars being ticketed if they are parked too close to the rolled curbs that line the neighborhood—have caused increased tension among residents.
Jensen, however, said the curbs cannot hold the weight of a car without getting damaged and therefore such rules are necessary. "My job is to protect the community as a whole," she said.
Residents also receive a fine if their car is parked too far away from the curb.
Garage doors have also entered the fray. Jan Couto said she is only allowed to use the door to enter and exit the garage in her car, but not by foot. Additionally, Couto said she was told that if any work in the yard needed to be done, supplies in the garage needed to be brought outside for the project—the garage door couldn't be open so someone could go back and forth.
Jensen explained that the garage door rule is a safety measure, and that if someone is visibly mowing their lawn, it's acceptable to have the garage door open. She says that the only time people are cited is if the garage door is open and no one is visible, and if they don't answer the phone or door.
Such rules have made residents like Varner, Couto and Sloan feel like the board is pushing people out of Towne Park.
"This goes far beyond trying to keep the integrity of something," said Couto. "This goes to the point where your every waking minute is worrying about whether you have a weed in your yard."
Jensen spoke metaphorically to explain, ultimately, why so many fines are necessary, arguing that people need to be forced to follow the rules because they won't do it on their own.
"If you run a red light and you don't get a ticket, are you going to stop running red lights?" she said.
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