Homeowners association tries to turn out lights on Murrysville man

| Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, 11:44 p.m.

A Murrysville man says his homeowners association is trying to pull the plug on his family's holiday spirit.

Since 1998, Eric Rehak has decorated his Georgetown Commons townhouse with brightly colored lights, window decorations and lit-up statues. But a recent change in rules issued by Georgetown Commons' homeowners association has Rehak racking up fines in excess of $400 and counting.

"I'm not like Chevy Chase in ‘Christmas Vacation,'" Rehak said. "All we want to do is be able to drive up and see nice lights at our house."

In February, his homeowners association council changed the rules for holiday decorating. Now, only white lights are permitted. Decorations only can be on display two weeks before and two weeks after Christmas. Only one "free-standing" decoration can be placed on a porch or sidewalk - and nothing can be placed in a homeowner's yard. Lights can't be affixed to railings, gutters, doors or fences. In fact, nothing can be attached to the home.

Even the window decorations must be only white lights, according to a rules revision published in the association's November newsletter. All lights can only be illuminated from dusk until midnight. Violations of any of the rules results in a $15 per day fine.

"When you have decorations that go up in the middle of November and stay up until after the holiday, what's the point?"said Ladd Thompson, president of the association's council. "Having them up that long for a one-day holiday is a bit excessive, don't you think?"

Rehak and his wife, Mary, put up their decorations the weekend after Thanksgiving, as many traditionally do. Their decorations are relatively modest, with colored, lighted decorations in each of their eight windows and a tree adorned with colored lights showing through a large window. They have two lighted plastic statues - a snowman and a Santa - in their driveway; four poinsettia plants along the sidewalk leading to their front door; and a wreath hanging on the entrance to the home near the garage. A second snowman sits near his front door.

All are violations of the association's new rules, which were approved by only the council, not the association's members.

"If I have to pay $500 in fines to beautify my place for Christmas, so be it," Rehak said. "There's not a place in the world that doesn't let you decorate after Thanksgiving."

Thompson said the rules were changed this year because the decorations were "getting out of hand" and weren't "tasteful." The council is in the process of rewriting its declaration - the basic covenant that governs the association - and has established a rules committee to recommend revisions. Rehak sits on that committee, Thompson said.

However, the ultimate change was council's decision and was not put to a homeowner vote.

Thompson said the council needs to protect property values - the last appraisal for the townhouses ranged from $123,000 to $124,000. During the past year, council has used association dues on $45,000 in vinyl fencing, $14,000 on roofs and $3,500 on landscaping.

Citing that sort of investment, Thompson said he doesn't want Christmas lights devaluing the property. When asked how seasonal decorations can bring down the value, Thompson said "it depends on what your idea of ‘looking good' is."

Thompson said he expects that the council will lift the ban on colored lights next year - he admits that it was a bit much - and said the rules have eliminated some of the "problems" in the community.

Not all of the council feels the same as Thompson. Treasurer Mike Sullivan called the move "capricious and arbitrary." He was the only council member to vote against the changes and said it's disgusted him to the point that he won't seek reelection in February.

Sullivan owns property in Georgetown Commons, but lives in the adjacent development, Colony Court. There, homes have brightly colored lights wrapped around railings and along gutters; there's angels, lighted trees and other signs of the season adorning residents' yards. Sullivan said there hasn't been a problem on Colony Court in the 14 years he's lived there - he even showed Thompson and other council members photos of the brightly decorated homes just one street over.

Georgetown needs to stop creating petty rules and focus its regulations on safety, property value and creating a level of decency in the community, Sullivan said. Acting as a Grinch towards those who decorate for the holidays doesn't fulfill any of those goals, he said.

"The Georgetown council has gone too far," Sullivan said. "I think it's wrong. It's inappropriate. It's meddling, and it's unnecessary."

Rehak said he'll keep his lights bright until a few days after New Years, even though he'll ultimately be fined more than $600. His decorations meet the standards that have been in place for many years, Sulivan said - standards that were voted upon by the homeowners, not just the council, as the revisions were.

Rehak said he's going to keep celebrating Christmas in the traditions of his and his wife's families.

"Our decorations are in good taste. This is what we grew up doing," Rehak said. "Christmas isn't just one day. It's the most wonderful time of the year."

Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8627, or dkurutz@tribweb.com.

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