It was so romantic when we first moved into the Denver area searching for what we thought might be our Shangri La. In leaving our home in Seattle, Washington, we were leaving behind a city where nearly every home looked out over a view of lakes, rivers or the ocean. We had lived all our lives in the Pacific Northwest, where the annual rainfall and humidity are so high that seemingly every drainage ditch was flushed daily and grew an abundance of blackberries, strawberries and raspberries.
In our first plane flight over Denver we thought we saw hundreds of little ponds and reservoirs scattered across the landscape, so we felt we had nothing to fear. Our Shangri La waited for us just below. We didn’t yet realize that the Denver area sits right on the edge of semi-arid desert.
We even found a home on a tiny water-skiing lake. Beautiful white homes surrounded our lovely gem. Neighbors were glad to meet us; we were thrilled to meet them.
But then the cold hard reality set in. Those lakes we saw from the plane were all mirages. They’d been thrown up by developers anxious to make a quick buck. The lakes weren’t stream fed. They weren’t washed by the Spring rains. No, those lakes eventually turned into fetid pools, reservoirs, divots in the ground designed to collect rainwater to be pumped up to the grass in community common areas. They smelled bad, they brewed up a noxious mix of odors, mosquitos and other biting bugs. So in Summertime, we found ourselves cowering indoors, covering ourselves with DEET and shaving cream, and anything else we thought might combat the biting bugs.
Then, came the letters from the Homeowners Association. “Our lake is essentially illegal, since it blocks rainwater and keeps it from flowing into the local drainage basin. We can try to get it permitted by the state, but it would have to be annually dredged to an appropriate depth. We plan to argue that our pond has become a federally protected wetwater area for migrating waterfowl.
“We all love our little wildlife pond. But to maintain it properly and legally is going to require an assessment from each of the surrounding homeowners. We will schedule a series of neighbood hearings, of course, but the meantime it appears that each homeowner is going to be assessed an extra $130,000 to help save our community asset. Alternatively, we can drain and restore the area with a little wooded park, which should only cost our neighborhood HOA about $50,000 per resident. In any event, none of these costs reflect the legal expenses we will otherwise incur, which will sadly be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Can you imagine the anger at our annual meeting? The insults hurled back and forth. The community picnics and parties we would never hold, the icy glares we got from neighbors who once smiled at each other?
We got conned. We all got conned. And it gave us our first taste of HOA community life.
Ward Lucas, author of Neighbors At War! The Creepy Case Against Your Homeowners Association