Murrysville homeowners association wins in case over planters, wood rack
By Brian Estadt
Published: Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
In a case that pit a homeowners association against a property owner who said its enforcement of rules is hurting property values, the George Commons homeowners association came out the winner.
Earlier this month, District Judge Charles Conway ruled in favor of the Murrysville homeowners association in its case against Michael Sullivan, whose tenant had violated rules by having two hanging baskets of flowers flanking a door and a rack of firewood in his yard.
Although finding for the homeowners association, Conway didn't award the full $2,196 it had been seeking. Conway ordered Sullivan to pay $420 plus court costs.
Sullivan said he was perplexed by the ruling. The $420 matches the fine that the association had levied for the wood rack, and, Sullivan said, he thought it more likely that Conway would rule against him for the fines related to the flowers. But, he said, he looks forward to testifying against the association in a separate appeal of a ruling Conway made against Georgetown Commons related to another resident's Christmas lights.
“This is out of control,” Sullivan said. “And it's all because of one man.”
He's referring to association President Ladd Thompson, who pointed out that the ruling didn't explain the reason for the $420 amount, just that it was a ruling against Sullivan.
“You can't tell someone they don't have good taste,” Thompson said. “This is why you set of rules for everybody. (The association) just spent a year and a half going over our declaration, going over the rules. We made the rules very specific. It's black and white.”
Thompson said the rules preserve property values.
“That's the main reason for the rules. If you didn't have any rules, anyone could do anything they wanted. Then it would look like Clarabell's clown.”
Sullivan had argued that the homeowners association should not be asking his tenant — who doesn't have an agreement with the association — to comply with its rules. It should deal with Sullivan, he argued.
He presented a timeline of 18 instances that he said Thompson approached his tenant instead of himself.
“Call me, and I'll call tenant and tell him to move it,” said Sullivan, who bought the town house in 2006 as an investment. “I'm not going to let my tenant jeopardize my property value, not for one second. He lives there because I let him live there.”
Thompson, however, said it was more convenient to deal with the tenant. He said he sends letters to both the tenant and Sullivan.
During the hearing, Sullivan said he — “under protest” — had his tenant remove the plants earlier in summer. But he refused to have the tenant move the wood rack.
When asked by Conway why he didn't move the wood rack to avoid accruing daily fines, Sullivan said, he hoped Conway would issue a ruling that would end what he thinks is heavy-handed enforcement of association rules.
“At some point, you just have to say ‘enough's enough.' It's on and on and on.”
Conway asked Sullivan why did didn't try to change the rules instead of fighting them.
“Well, why hasn't there been a homeowners revolution and take over the board?” Conway asked Sullivan.
“Ha,” said Sullivan, who had served as treasurer of the homeowners association but — citing his workload — chose not to try to retain his position on its board when it expired in February. “I don't have the time.”
After the ruling, Thompson said the attention Sullivan is bringing to the development is what's hurting property values.
“Mike is concerned about the property value in Georgetown, but who told (the Murrysville Star) about the hearing?” Thompson asked. “(The media attention) only brings a negative light toward Georgetown, which destroys property value. Doesn't make sense to me.”
Sullivan didn't notify this paper of the hearing but was willing to talk to reporters about the case.
When asked by Conway the reason for the prohibition on the wood rack, Thompson confirmed that is for aesthetics.
“Trailer park comes to mind,” he said. “Our goal was to make it look good.”
Thompson said the association recently paid a contractor $273 to remove “two buckets of stuff” such as hooks, nails and screws that had been added to town house exteriors over the years in violation of rules.
Georgetown Commons came out on the losing end of a case in Conway's court earlier this year when it tried to collect $12,645 in fines against a homeowner who violated its rules by hanging colored Christmas lights on his property, having potted plants lining his driveway and unapproved landscaping. Sullivan testified for defendant Erik Rehak.
That homeowners association is appealing that decision in the Westmoreland Country Court of Common Pleas. No date has been set for the appeal.
Brian Estadt is a news editor with Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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