Stories

TRUE HOA STORIES

FROM

Colorado Citizens

The Law Abiders

Teri Chavez sets out flowered china mugs for her visitor and pours fragrant coffee from her new  Keurig, obligingly explaining how it works. Her large kitchen, appointed with such newly-bought niceties, used to be filled with talk and laughter: friends sharing secrets over wine, neighbors splitting a pizza, a noisy card game.  “All I wanted to do was protect my community,” says Teri, looking around the  kitchen that now stands empty.

Thirteen years ago, Teri believed this spacious single family home with the rolling hills out back would be her “forever home.” She’d loved her work—Denver police officer for 27 years, respected and promoted to Narcotics Detective and hostage negotiator—but Teri yearned to enter the next stage of life, and Heritage Eagle Bend—a gated golf community in Aurora — seemed just the ticket. Here, Teri would spend quality time with her husband, Dennis; here, she could care for her ailing mother; here, Teri would socialize, to her heart’s content, something this friendly people-person had never had time to do.

      And for a long while, that’s what happened.

      Teri was able to nurse her mom, and still have a week filled with card games and parties. “The people in my cul de sac got very close,” she says wistfully. “We had get-togethers all the time. Drinks at the Clubhouse, dinner …”

      The Clubhouse Restaurant was where the trouble first started. When a surprise report turned up years of health code violations, Teri was not surprised. “I’d been served a sandwich on moldy bread. I saw a friend spit out a bite of dinner, the chicken was bad …” 

What surprised Teri was how the board handled the situation. “They didn’t talk about the problem. They just said, ‘We’re taking care of it.’ They didn’t want questions.”

Among the few who did ask questions, Teri noticed a man who spoke with unassuming directness. This was Vladimir Anisimow—Vlad—who’d learned, from almost the first breath he took, that free speech is gold.

Vlad was born in a Displaced Persons Camp in Germany in 1947. His parents, before they even met, were taken from Russia by the Nazis. His father, a captain in the Russian army, was captured on the war front; his mother was moved from the Ukraine to Berlin. This DP Camp was as far as they—and other damaged collateral from the war—had gotten. “There were Holocaust survivors in that camp,” Vlad recalls. “When I was 3 ½, I saw one blow his brains out.”

That Holocaust survivor—and the Statue of Liberty welcoming 5-year-old Vlad and his family—were his two most vivid memories. Vlad grew up in Denver, graduated from East High and UC; was a Commissioned Marine Corps Officer and became a successful engineer.

When he retired, Vlad bought into Heritage Eagle Bend “mostly because my wife loves to socialize.” But he found a gratifying niche for himself, guiding the newly-built, problem-afflicted community with his engineering expertise.

Vlad had his work cut out for him.

“The first winter I was here,” he recalls, “we had a 37 1/2 inch snowfall. I am starting to get calls: ‘We can’t put our plows on the street! Because the street appears to be sinking!’” 

Vlad studied and analyzed, then shared what he’d found: “HEB’s developer, Lennar, had not properly installed underdrain pipes, which then failed the streets with massive sinking of the entire street.”

The only way to make HEB whole, Vlad knew, was to make Lennar pay. He creatively funded litigation by assessing each HEB homeowner (1442 altogether) the affordable sum of $592.00.

“We prevailed!,” he recalls, smiling. “Lennar had to give HEB $12.5 million.”

With that settlement, Vlad became the local hero. Not that he described himself that way or bragged. He stepped down from chairing the Facilities and Grounds Committee. HEB was thriving. But he kept his oar in. The restaurant issue seemed to Vlad  “a simple matter compared to Lennar.” He didn’t understand why he board refused to share details with the community, why they were “circling the wagons.”

Teri was asking the board for specific details. Trained to protect vulnerable citizens, Teri asked how HEB intended to protect the elderly. “This was an over-50 community. The original owners are now … old! And older digestive systems can’t take the kind of health violations that were  coming out of our clubhouse kitchen!”

But if you asked too many questions, Teri recalls, “you were seen as ‘not supporting’ the board. They told us to show loyalty by continuing to eat at the Clubhouse!”

About a year later, Vlad realized he was needed again—not to fix a present problem but ward off a future one. For a while, he’d been aware that the new board president harbored a dream—to expand the HEB Clubhouse into something fantastic—but now the man had announced his intention. “He was filling everyone’s heads with dreams of how life will be wonderful with this wonderful Clubhouse, with coffee bar and wine bar, so splendid it will raise property values!”

Vlad needed to talk to the president—a nice enough man, he thought, but lacking any background to understand the ramifications of such a project. Vlad knew the guy would listen, but just for good measure, he got two other homeowners, both engineers to meet with the board president.

“Between us, we had over 100 years of construction experience!,” recalls Vlad. “One engineer, who’d done cost analysis at Exxon, explained, very clearly, that we should not take a financial risk with a discretionary project, since we had issues with water availability, and additional major street repairs unknowns, and a potential IRS issue for non-payment of past taxes—

“But the president just kept saying, ‘We’re doing it. We can do this.’

“Then suddenly,” Vlad recalls, “I get a letter from our HOA attorney, David Firmin, saying the board no longer wished to hear from me.”

“From this point on,” notes Teri, “there were very few HOA meetings where David Firmin wasn’t present.

“Residents would ask technical questions but the president never could answer them. So he’d refer to Mr. Firmin, whose response was always, ‘We don’t have to answer that.’”

Vlad shakes his head. “It was unbelievable to see our whole board, backed by our HOA attorney, acting as if there was no other reality outside of one guy’s desire to expand the Clubhouse!”

“And that reality,” Teri adds, “now became everyone’s reality.”

This is how bad it got, Teri says. “At one meeting, the Exxon engineer really tried hard to explain why he thought we should just do a risk assessment analysis before jumping in and putting our funds at risk—and residents started booing him! They booed him!

“I couldn’t believe residents would do that. I couldn’t believe they’d put up with what happened next. The board president came over to that engineer. He said loudly, ‘We. Don’t. Need. Residents. Approval. For. ANYTHING.’”

“Our community was mostly older people,” Teri explains, “who have reached a stage where they don’t want trouble in their lives. It’s kind of duck and cover time. Don’t rock the boat. Then this attitude gets forced on you—Oh, look how hard the board works, they care so much, they must be right—and if you don’t go along, you are a pariah.  So they go along.

“I call it conversational fraud. I believed our neighbors had been sold a bill of goods.”

But how to convince their neighbors?

With the facts, that’s how.

By now, Teri, Vlad and another owner had been meeting, convinced this board was violating their fiduciary responsibilities. The three familiarized themselves with the state laws that govern HOAs, the Colorado Common Interest Ownership Act (CCIOA). They knew they had a legal right to the facts they needed—full financial statements, contracts and records of monies spent so far on this project.

They followed CCIOA procedure and submitted requests to the HEB board and management for those items. 

“But every request we made,” Teri recalls, “Mr. Firmin blocked. He kept all information away from us.”

“For months, we’d been trying to talk to the board, voice our concerns about our community’s financial wellbeing,” says Teri, who spent a lifetime upholding the law. “Their only response was to send us Cease and Desist letters.

“We had no alternative but to hire an attorney and file a lawsuit,” says Teri, who wonders, How bad would it have gotten if the board didn’t stir up trouble right from the beginning?

Their attorney sent a Demand Letter, asking the HEB board to deliver to his clients those items they’d requested and for a $600,000 penalty if they didn’t comply. 

This type of Demand Letter is not uncommon. HOAs all over Colorado consistently refuse to give up info, and HOA attorneys routinely get paid to write a letter saying what will happen if they don’t. Not that it does much good.

The HOAs who ignore such letters are legion. 

The HEB board didn’t just ignore the letter. They wrote their own scenario—greedy homeowners soak HEB for all they can get—around it.

The board sent an eblast to every HEB resident denouncing the letter as “unreasonable” and “harmful.” They said the letter was available in the Administrative Office, but only 10 or 15 actually came in to read it, says Teri, explaining that most homeowners’ thoughts about the letter—and about her and Vlad—were influenced by the board’s eblast.

“The only parts of the letter they quoted,” Teri says, “are things that would inflame the community, like the $600,000 penalty ….

“They didn’t mention that if that money were ever collected, it would be insurance that paid out, not homeowners. What they definitely did not mention was the reason we asked for that penalty—and how easily it could be avoided. Just give us those items to which we are legally entitled!

“They didn’t correct the homeowners who started saying things about us, like, we are threatening to sue the board for monetary gain only. This was so false, so untrue. But the board by their silence encouraged everyone to believe it.

“So the neighbors believed it. Almost everyone.”

Months later, Teri could look back and reflect, “I was surprised that the community had that much vitriol in them.”

At the time, she stared at her laptop in shock.

She took screenshots. Of the message calling out the letters signers by name. Of one urging, “Neighbors, unify in support of our blameless, hard-working board!” Of vicious ones like, “It is hard to believe that [the 3 signers] continue to appear in public.”

“They didn’t ask questions,” Teri says, “They attacked. Like a mob.”

What happened next shocked her more. “I was kicked out of all my groups. All of ‘em! My two Bunko groups, Rummy Cube…They told me, ‘We don’t want you back… ”

.     “They never wanted to hear the other side. They never wanted to hear the truth …”

But being right didn’t make it hurt any less.

“People I didn’t even know would tell me to move! People would glare at me when I walked into the Clubhouse, or a board meeting…”

      Teri continued to attend meetings. But being ostracized was no fun. “In front of several neighbors, a sitting board member called me a ‘the lowest of the low.’ I was called a ‘liar,’ every bad word on social media.

      “Dennis and I were very close with all our cul de sac  neighbors. Now just two, out of 18 houses, would speak to us.”

      This was not the “forever home” Teri had envisioned. The months went by—with the usual block parties. “We weren’t invited to any of them. And we used to host them! We’d been marginalized and demonized. But the board president kept ginning up anger against us. In an open meeting, he claimed that our lawsuit cost the community $300,000! This was just an outright lie.”

      The lawsuit hadn’t cost the community much of anything. Months later, when the case ended—not with a bang but a whimper, when “the judge ruled against us on a procedural technicality”—it still hadn’t.

      What was costing the community money was the Clubhouse, an increasingly unwieldy project that HEB was struggling to fund. 

      The board renamed it “Clubhouse Repurposing” and voted for “a self-funding alternative”—including “the removal of nearly $800,000 from the Construction Litigation Fund.”

      The news hit Vlad hard. This was the remaining monies from Lennar litigation.

When HEB first got the Lennar settlement, the first thing Vlad did was  return $592 to each resident.  The second thing was quash plans to buy new carpeting or furniture with the remaining $800,000. When Vlad explained to residents why they should hold onto that money, they’d listened. Vlad was respected. He’d saved the day!

      Now, people felt free to insult him. Or—like one woman—to rush up close and yell into his face, “WHY DON’T YOU JUST LEAVE?!”

      “They’d drunk the Kool Aid,” says Vlad, who tried to break the spell with one more memo to owners: “That money [$800,000] was to be used for future roadway problems … With our accounts drained by the $3 million [Clubhouse] project, any emergency situation will probably require SPECIAL ASSESSMENTS.”

      The Budget got passed that November.

      “We trashed our Reserves Fund,” Vlad says wearily. “Money meant to address future repairs and emergencies was pulled forward to do this Clubhouse. “

      A Clubhouse which was not exactly what had been promised. No wine bar. No coffee bar. “Nobody ended up with what they wanted,” Teri said, “Because what they wanted couldn’t be done.”

      “This was the kind of culture we had now,” Vlad observed grimly. “‘Don’t believe your lying eyes.’”

      While the Clubhouse project floundered, life moved inexorably forward. Dennis battled cancer. He underwent quadruple bypass surgery. Teri’s mother died.  

      Construction on the Clubhouse got delayed. 

      The abuse continued.

      “After one eblast from the board president,” Teri recalls, “a few community members wanted to organize and publicly shame me and the other two…

      Teri had vowed they would not leave this home they’d put so much into without a decent offer. Now she realized, “Any hope of recovering friendships was in the toilet. At our ages, time is short. Happiness is more important.”

      And although selling wasn’t easy and living in temporary quarters while they search for a new home isn’t ideal, Teri and Dennis know they made the right decision.

      Looking back, what do you think started this mess?

      Teri sees this: “One person, despite good and expert advice, decides he wants to do this attention-getting grand thing.  And—because no one wants to be the unpopular dissenter—the community follows.”

      Vlad has a darker view. “It’s a mob mentality. People have that inside them. They just need a leader to wake it up.”

      He describes a recent HOA meeting. “A woman who’d just moved here spoke up, and because of what she’d experienced at her last HOA, she offered advice to the board, Be careful with expenditures—and residents start booing and hissing her.

      “Can you imagine? Being a newcomer and having neighbors boo and hiss you for saying something sensible? And the board president stands by and does nothing?             “What does that tell a new owner? Better go along with the group or you’ll be an outsider. And no one wants to be that.”

Left for the Wolves

When you first meet Jim Gongaware, you might be tempted to back off. Why can’t he stop talking about this one subject?   You might dismiss him as “obsessed” or a “crank.”  And then you remember: the only way any wrong ever got righted was when some person felt it in every cell of their body. And refused to stop talking.

      “I consider myself a fighter,” says Jim, who captained most every sports team he ever played on, doused oil fires in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm—and drove 2 hours down to Denver and 2 hours back for the HOA Stakeholder Sessions, “because the fiercest fight of my life is with the billionaire bully who ruined our community and the HOA system that allowed it to happen.”

         When you first see a photo of Jim’s house—a magisterial log and stone dwelling presiding over 40 acres of prize Colorado land—you might think Jim started out with money.

          He started out with nothing.

          Jim’s mother died when he was 2. His bewildered father “didn’t know what to do with me,” so as a small boy, and later, during summers, Jim lived on his grandparents’ dairy farm.

 The kind of man Jim became, he learned on that farm.  Trailing his grandfather from dawn to dusk, he saw the man’s never ending efforts and developed a formidable work ethic.  He learned the joys and rewards of living out in the country. And he learned that if he wanted something, he’d have to get it himself. “I bought my first BMX bicycle, as an 8-year-old with a paper route. My first moped, my first truck… everything I wanted, I bought with money I earned myself.

          “I knew I had to pay for the majority of college myself. That’s why I signed up for the Air Force in 1989. The Berlin Wall had just come down and I thought, ‘The world’s more or less at peace.’ Then, just after I entered basic training, Iraq invaded Kuwait.”

         Every place life took him, Jim picked up skills. In the Air Force, he learned to fix planes. He studied woodworking (reaching master craftsman level), led construction crews, got an engineering degree, then an engineering job with Gates Rubber Company, which sent him to Mexico to train the local workers. Then Gates laid Jim off with the rest of the U.S. factory workers.

Determined to be in business for himself, Jim got an MBA—he loved learning—and moved to Vail Valley to start a home building business. There was nothing he could have been better prepared for. Jim knew construction, engineering, architecture; he loved the wild Colorado land. And experience had taught him: if he put the full force of his will behind something, he would succeed.          Word traveled about the young man who built magnificent homes and Jim’s business thrived. Now he could afford to buy land and build his own “dream home.” Jim picked a spot that seemed a haven from the world’s craziness—a place, strangely enough, where he had relatives.

Not long after Jim moved to Colorado, he’d met a distant cousin, Chuck, so similar in lifestyle and interests, Jim called him, “my brother from another mother.” It was Chuck who introduced Jim to the Horse Mountain Ranch (HRM) community, where Chuck lived on the south side. Jim fell in love with a plot on the north side of HMR, near Wolcott, an Eagle County hamlet where the hills are covered with sage.

Jim plunked down $285,000 for the 40-acre parcel. When the seller tacked on another $5,000 at closing, Jim didn’t hesitate. “I wasn’t about to let someone’s greed make me miss out on the most amazing property with the most amazing water that there is on Horse Mountain Ranch.”

      It was 2003 when Jim bought his property. His mother’s early death made Jim fiercely independent—and also, someone who longed for roots. He was excited to use everything he’d learned to build his house and begin a life.     But just a few years before, unbeknownst to Jim, a man named Magnus Lindholm—a Swedish shipping magnate-turned-developer—had been busily buying up Colorado land, most notably in Eagle Country where HRM was located.

Lindholm made his actions as covert as possible, Jim says. The Vail Daily reports that in 1998, Lindholm made a deal with the Vail Town Council that “gave [Lindholm] extraordinary development rights and taxing authority…”

The amount of land Lindholm eventually bought made him “the biggest landowner in Eagle County.” 

The number of lots Lindholm purchased in the HMR area gave him something else: control of all three HOAs: the north, south and west sides of the community.

      Jim, Chuck and the other residents of HMR had been attending HOA meetings. Then suddenly, it happened: three months after Jim bought his “amazing 40-acre lot, the contentious takeover of my HOA was finalized. We called this time the ‘hostile takeover.’”

      Magnus Lindholm now controlled the HOA under which Jim and his neighbors lived. He started changing the HOA rules. He did this under the persona of Piney Valley Ranches Trust, or “The Piney,” as everyone soon called it.

      “He calls himself ‘the Piney’,” Jim says wearily. “‘The Piney Valley Ranches Trust.’ ‘Traer Creek development.’ ‘Magnus Lindholm’—these are all the same people …”

      Jim had been ready to build. Now he could not—unless he abided by all of the new, confusing and expensive rules.

“These rules we had to go by now were ordered by the Piney, who could do whatever it wanted, since it controlled two-thirds of the votes. First the HOA told me they required a $5,000 security deposit.

      “They wouldn’t allow my already purchased roofing material, Vail Village Design Review Board approved sage green and grey steel shingles. The Piney said I had to use only forest green, which made no sense on my sage covered land.  And, initially, I was going to build a small caretaker house as each 40-acre lot was allowed a primary house and a caretaker house.

      “Now they put in rules that said I had to build a big house—or not build at all.  

      “Oh, and the other new rule—I couldn’t keep my RV … outdoors—on my own property!  I told them, ‘My nearest neighbor is a mile away. I am not living in my RV, I am working from it. What’s the problem?’”

Jim braved the brutal winters to stay on his land and build his house. For over 2 ½ years, working 24/7, gritting his teeth at one changed rule after another, Jim built, “my amazing house, which I designed, engineered, GC’d, custom built everything from pipe dream to furniture.”

Jim’s experience, his skills, his grandfather’s example, guided him to  “build a house that was over engineered every conceivable way… it would pay me back with heating savings, and bullet proof against the Piney’s hunting.”

Never did he think all that over-engineering would save his life.

      Residents of the Horse Mountain Ranch community stopped going to meetings, says Jim. “The community did not have the votes to stop the Piney’s plans. We didn’t know—I don’t think anyone knows—what his ultimate goals were.”

      It was as if an evil presence had taken over this pristine paradise.  Who could help get it out?

      Jim and other community members got together and wrote a letter to their state representatives. He filed a complaint with DORA. He got little response.

      That didn’t seem right.

      Jim kept track of every outrage. “Magnus Lindholm kept changing the rules because he kept changing the HOA governing documents, with no community input. None. In the third covenant change, a ‘design review’ fee of, get this, $15,000—and … homes can only be ranch-style with no upper level living area.

      Plus, they changed the rules to allow only wood fencing. They outlawed barbed wire fencing and that made it impossible to keep the sheep and cattle off my property.  Also the new covenants outlaw perimeter fences of any kind.

      “Oh, another new rule? You have to finish building a house in 9 months.”

“Was he trying to ruin the community? Who knows,” Jim says. “The community has never been able to figure out what Magnus wants.

“I do know he had his builder put lead sheets in his wood stick framed walls.  Magnus knows he’s hurt people terribly. He’s concerned about being shot.”

      Jim is convinced the HOA, controlled by the Piney, imposed all those rules to discourage more homes from being built so they would have fewer people in the way, as they run sheep and hunting in the area.  “They have changed the covenants to allow sheep and hunting on the ranch.  While making the rules so no one else could shoot guns or hunt or properly fence out their sheep.  They got their property tax status changed to agricultural status (AG) to pay squat in taxes.

      “It is outrageous that the Piney gets AG tax rate, paying only $25 per lot per year in property tax. Some people have caved to the Piney and get AG tax rate too. While the rest of our community has to pay 10 to 50 times more property tax…

      “And the Piney does not contribute ANYTHING,” Jim says, “to maintain our roads. Not one dollar!”

      “But I won’t get AG status. I can’t. Out of principle.”

Then, in 2010, a freak accident imploded Jim’s dream house. “The explosion was caused by a propane leak,” he explains. “The gas company was found to be at fault, not me, the builder. I was in the garage when the house blew up!”

      The house burned to the ground, which, at the time, felt like a tragedy. “In the end, it was a blessing,” Jim says.  “I was alive—itself a miracle—and it set me free from my debt as I could not sell the house due to the HOA problem.”

      “But going on 10 years later, I am financially trapped. I cannot sell my 40 acres in HMR at half the price. People are interested, sure. Then they learn about all the changed covenants and the unreasonable design and plan review fees—they don’t want to build here. Who can blame them?”

      “Property values have fallen … and it’s not just the rules. It’s what the HOA, the Piney, is not doing,” Jim says. “In 2004, the Piney quit paying its $800 dues for its almost 100 lots … The metro district sued them and only got half of the back dues –and the Piney was not made to pay anything moving forward.

      “This leaves,” Jim says with emphasis, “the entire community with insufficient funds to maintain the roads.”

       Jim has not rebuilt because of “the outrageous rules crafted to keep myself and others from building and living in the path of the Piney. … Last year, the HOA shot down my new solar house plan design because it had a partial upper level floor. I said, ‘Well, what if I just rebuilt what I had? The house that burned down.’

      “Nope. They wouldn’t allow it. I have years, years of stories like this,” says Jim.

After his house blew up Jim put another RV on the property. Last January, the HOA threatened fines if he didn’t move it—which he told them, is impossible. “Because thePiney doesn’t pay anything to maintain the roads, my metro-maintained road and my RV were buried under the snow.”  

      Jim now lives with his fiancée. He’s grateful for her, his family and his business. But he cannot shrug off what has happened. He cannot forget how, a “few years after the hostile takeover, myself and some neighbors thought if we told our state reps the whole story, they would help. Our community asked for mediation. There is no oversight on these HOAs and so something like this—which affects not just me, but all the people who have been foreclosed on—can happen.

      “I feel like we have been left for the wolves. The wolves being the Piney.”

      Jim looks older than his 47 years; his hair has turned white. He suffers from depression. He tells his story to whomever will listen. “But people are tired of it,” he says.  My father, my stepmother,  my fiancée, my friends, even Chuck—want me to stop talking about it …    

      “Everything I did in my life, I put into that house—even with all those rules against me. All the money I’d worked so hard for, and saved, I put into that house. I’m working to survive because I can’t sell my property.  …

      “Back when I was dealing with their design review harassment, the Piney’s head lawyer called me “cowboy” –because he saw I was not afraid to stand up to them. I did not expect this HOA system to have so many loopholes that a crook could ruin so many lives …              “I am a fighter. I am a veteran of Desert Storm. And I did not risk my life for this country to have my life ruined by my HOA”

The Fortunate One

Tall, handsome, quick-witted, well-spoken,  J.J. Keegan enjoyed an agreeable life where success was the norm. When he got a hunch—what would optimize profits at his beloved golf course—J.J. used his accounting and finance background to build a business around that idea. Soon, Fairway Systems was providing tee time reservation software in four countries and 450 golf courses across the U.S.

      At 45, J.J. Keegan became a wealthy man. 

      But money was never king with J.J, who valued character and decency. At midlife, what excited J.J. was sharing the business principles he had developed. As an “envisioning strategist and reality mentor,” J.J. taught those skills to new golf course owners around the globe. In spots as different as Cambodia, Argentina and Russia, J.J. delighted in the people he met and the cultures he visited—experiences which confirmed his world view: Treat people the way you wish to be treated, and they’ll usually respond in kind.

      J.J. believed that until—at age 69—he moved into an HOA with a culture more primitive and dictatorial than any he had ever seen.

The Village of Castle Pines is so populous, it’s divided into 18 subdivisions or “neighborhoods.” Newly single at 57, J.J. moved into the Morningstar subdivision, where a few years later, he met Debra Bryan, “a woman as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside.”

      Debra saw that Jim, as she called J.J., was “that rare commodity, a true gentleman.

      “We had each found our soulmate,” Debra recalls. “We wanted our own home for this marriage. On walks through Castle Pines, we’d see this one neighborhood, so beautiful, and we’d say to each other, ‘Oh, I wish we could live there.’”

      Then a friend alerted them—a house just available—and on October 31, 2017, the couple moved into the Orofino Place subdivision in the Village of Castle Pines.

Orofino is indeed beautiful. The Enchanted Forest, Debra dubbed it—19 homes, each a charming version of the English Cotswold “storybook” style, nestled amongst gentle hills and dales. Debra—a master gardener—couldn’t wait to create beautiful gardens for what she was already calling “Our Dream House.”

That fall was so warm, she began planting immediately. (Weeks before, the couple had dutifully emailed photos of Debra’s previous gardens to the Orofino HOA; they’d been in the house two weeks before a belated reply assured them, the gardens would be “a welcome addition.”) Debra put in tulip and daffodil bulbs and other flowers from the Village of Castle Pines Approved List. She and J.J. looked forward to soaking in all that lush beauty while enjoying leisurely, private meals on the patio—which was visible from more than a few neighbors’ homes. So when they fixed the crumbling stacked stone wall that abutted the patio, they also had it built up and raised 30 inches.

      The couple adored their new home. They wanted to love their new neighborhood. They heard hints that all was not perfect in the Enchanted Forest—whispered words at the Christmas party, a story about the board bullying some resident. But they wanted to be positive. J.J. assumed whatever neighborly spats had gone on, none of that interfered with how the HOA was run. So when he discovered there were dead trees touching their property, J.J. followed protocol and wrote to the Orofino Place HOA, asking the board to have the trees removed.

But to his surprise, the board refused. “The trees may be in your view, but they’re not in your purview,” wrote board member Joseph Gschwentnder. In other words, You don’t get to decide when those trees go, we do.

In his next email, J.J. told the board that the trees were a fire hazard. He believed the trees and underbrush both constituted a safety issue.

 The board didn’t respond.

 J.J. was not wanting a confrontation. But he needed to protect his home and family. He had always been a stickler for safety and doing things the right way. J.J. now initiated a Fire Mitigation plan, prepared by the South Metro Fire Rescue Agency.

The board never fully implemented that plan.

Huh. This was not the sort of efficient, get-it-done-right environment J.J. was used to. He appealed to the main HOA Design and Review Committee in the Village of Castle Pines, which agreed the trees should be removed. However, that Committee explained, the main Castle Pines HOA had no jurisdiction over its sub-associations. The authority rested solely with the Orofino Place HOA.

      The conversation between J.J. and the Orofino board was still ongoing five months later, on June 5, 2018, when Debra woke early and went to see how her garden was growing.

      “I was on the porch in my pajamas and robe, sipping coffee, looking to see if the peonies and columbine, the June flowers, were up—when a man came barreling out from between two houses. I’m like, Did he just take a picture of me?

      “I’m sorry, can I help you?” Debra said.

      The man ignored her.

“He’s maybe 15 feet away … I asked him three times to say who he is—nothing—then another man comes out.

“I ask what’s going on—and he barks at me, “We’re taking pictures of the wall! You need to come to an HOA meeting!’

“I don’t know these men. I felt totally violated.

      “Right after they left, I was so upset. I went downstairs to Jim, who reminded me of who the man was. The board member we’d met. Bill Calhoun.”

     
Debra is a strong and accomplished woman. She runs a successful employment agency that truly helps people. But it took work to get to that place. Years before, Debra had gone through the kind of divorce you see on Dateline. The Denver Post had it as front page news. “My ex did horrible things. He told my daughter, ‘Something bad is going to happen to Mommy.’ He told me, ‘You better spend time with the girls—while you’re still alive.’ I feared for my life.”

      After the divorce, Debra struggled, financially and emotionally. She entered therapy. She started her business. She built a good life, which included this new habit: if Debra saw someone being abused—a child in the supermarket, say—she went over and tried to help.

      These days, the traumatic memories lay dormant. But a certain kind of cruelty could wake them up. “When Bill Calhoun did that to me, it was a trigger. I was flooded with feelings I hadn’t felt for so long …”

      That night, J.J. wrote a long email to the Orofino community. He nailed Calhoun’s behavior—“rude, mean, insolent.” He caught neighbors up on the dead tree saga. “Mr. Calhoun’s source of irritation was not with my wife, but with me.” Citing stories he’d heard about the Orofino board, he reminded neighbors that they didn’t have to live like this. He ended by asking them to join him in requesting Calhoun’s resignation.

The few who responded dismissed all J.J. said. “Please do not email me again,” one wrote.

      Why would people put up with board members acting like this? J.J. and Debra didn’t yet understand. But they soon understood they’d been singled out. Shortly after the June 5 incident, two letters arrived. The first, a Cease and Desist from the Orofino HOA attorney, accused J.J. of violating William Calhoun’s First Amendment Rights. The second, a Notice for an Enforcement hearing, informed Debra and J.J. they were being fined the sum of $5000 for breaking the Association’s rules—they hadn’t asked permission to plant colorful flowers or raise the stone wall—with an additional $500 each week until they took the wall down, and the flowers, out.

      “I could have just cowered to the bullies,” J.J. says. “I could have written a check right then and there. I’m lucky. I can afford it. But I have a deep belief: you do not abuse a woman. You do not abuse my wife. You do not mistreat another person!”

The Enforcement letter shocked them both. J.J. first dealt with practicalities. The date of the Enforcement hearing conflicted with his travel schedule and was too short notice for his attorney. He requested a change of date.

      The board refused.

      After perusing the Orofino bylaws, J.J. discovered that the Association specified that a first violation should be fined only $100. They were being fined 50 times that amount! But J.J. had no intention of moving. He would just try harder to get along, every way he knew how.

      Debra did not believe trying harder would work. But she helped draw up new landscape plans, which they submitted to the board—then in a burst of hopeful enthusiasm, they decided to move past negativity and show friendly intentions: they would invite the whole community to an August party, a festive “Summer BBQ.”

      Only one person showed up for the BBQ—two hours late, and only to warn Debra and J.J. that this board could be “vicious.”

      That sentiment rang true when the board rejected their new landscape plans—“Flowers have to be sparse with muted colors”—and also ordered J.J. and Debra to leave the stone wall alone. If they touched the wall, they board warned, they’d be sued.

      By now, J.J. understood that the Orofino board enforced their rules selectively. He had seen, in his walks through the Orofino neighborhood, flower gardens just as colorful and two stone walls just as high. But this last was simply crazy: they’d been told to take the stone wall down to its original height or be fined $500 a week; now the board was threatening suit if he or Debra even “touched” the wall.          

      Debra felt the walls closing in. She told J.J. she wanted to sell and get out.

      But J.J. didn’t want to move. He wanted to beat this thing. Somewhere there had to be an answer. Poring over the bylaws, J.J saw that a fined Orofino homeowner had the right to Mediation. That’s what he wanted: a way to tell their side of the story.

      J.J. submitted a request for Mediation to the Orofino board—which promptly refused.

      How to fight such unfairness?

      There must be a higher authority to appeal to, thought J.J. But after much research, he came up empty.

      With trademark thoroughness, J.J. began a study of all things HOA (while continuing to meticulously document each occurrence inside their own HOA). He learned that each HOA was a self-governing body, whose actions were guided by their own bylaws and the laws of their state. In J.J.’s state, the laws pertaining to HOAs were called the Colorado Common Interest Ownership Act, or CCIOA.

      What he could not find was any way that homeowners could ensure their HOA obeyed those laws.

      The unfairness leveled against him and Debra was not only hurtful—it was illegal, J.J. realized.

      “I didn’t want to go to court. But I had no choice. I had to file litigation or the HOA fine became a default judgement, and a lien could be placed on the house …”

      At least in court, they’ll abide by the law, J.J. thought, writing a check for $5000 to his new attorney, who estimated J.J. would spend another $100, 000 before this was done.

      Still, J.J. insisted, “I’m one of the fortunate ones because I can afford to go to court.”

      A year and a half after he’d filed for Mediation, the court had not yet arranged it.       Motions and counter motions bounced back and forth endlessly.

      Debra recalls one awful day, sitting on the ground, pulling up flowers, tears streaming down her face. She’d once named this neighborhood an Enchanted Forest. Now, Debra called it “a Haunted Forest, in an English Cotswold community, filled with evil spirits, wicked witches and mean men.”

      “Please let’s get out of here,” she pleaded almost daily. “I can’t take it.”

      For the first time, the two were in opposition.

      “Jim and I have lived different lives,” Debra explains. “Jim thinks people are good. But I’ve known people like this. Scalawags. They’re not going to change.”

      It was not just the board. It was the unreasonable, terrifying anger neighbors now felt free to express toward both Debra and J.J.

      The neighbors acted “like an unruly mob,” says J.J. “It was hard to believe. But we saw it.”

      Neighbors felt free to harass Debra, J.J. says, when she attended the Orofino Place HOA Annual meeting accompanied only by their attorney. He was out of town on business, but later learned “how neighbors yelled at Debra, how one woman, Mary Elizabeth Jacobson, starts filming her …”

      That level of vitriol was now common.

      J.J. recalls one horrifying incident. “Debra was walking down the street and a neighbor, Dr. Riopelle, began backing his car out of the driveway … to block her! He drives back and forth, back and forth, while Debra tries to get around him so she can walk home.”

      J.J.’s files document their ordeal. He’d written a Document of Harassment, created an elaborate Timeline with every court proceeding; an articulate paper analyzing CCIOA “for possible inequities.” The biggest inequity of all, he found, was that CCIOA laws were not enforceable.

      “It is assumed,” J.J. concluded, “that the Board of Directors or the Management Company will comply fully with its duties and responsibilities. But what if they don’t?”

“Jim was fighting so hard, for me, for us,” recalls Debra. “I knew that. But sometimes I had thoughts … of fleeing … alone.”

      Those thoughts didn’t last. “I love Jim. We will go through this together,” vowed Debra, who nonetheless rejoiced when J.J. finally agreed to sell. They were just about to take one of three excellent offers—when the Orofino Place HOA, citing “nonpayment of fines,” slapped a lien on their home.

      Now they could not sell.

      “We were stuck in a neighborhood where we were the pariahs,” Debra said. “Those last months were … very hard.”

      One day, Debra and Jim were sitting on the porch, when Debra saw “about 10 neighbors gathered at the top of the cul de sac. Joe G. was there, the board president. I summoned up my courage. I got up and went over to the group. I was so distraught. I was shaking.

      “‘Please Joe,’ I said. ‘Please take the lien off so we can move. I’m going to have a nervous breakdown. Please.’

      “Then a man I knew, a member of the Castle Pines Golf Club, starts yelling, ‘You should leave, you don’t belong here.’ Then Joe’s wife starts yelling, ‘TAKE DOWN THAT WALL. TAKE IT DOWN!’

      “I tried to explain that the HOA had forbidden us to touch the wall—then another neighbor, the doctor, interrupts and screams, ‘GET OUT! YOU DON’T BELONG HERE! I WILL DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO GET YOU OUT OF HERE!’”

      Telling a friend how their lives had changed, J.J. said, “ … Debra wakes up, she gets coffee, I get the paper, we sit down—and it’s always the same subject: how do we extricate ourselves from a neighborhood of people that are so vile and mean, that have taken such unjust action?”

The lien on their home had been improperly filed, J.J. says. “But to get it removed took five months and $22,000 in legal fees.”

      On September 6, 2019, the court ordered the Orofino Place HOA to remove the lien. The HOA filed a motion protesting that decision—and for the next 2 ½ months they fought to keep the lien in place. Finally, attorney Mason Simpson, of Robinson & Henry, informed Stefane Dupont, the Orofino Place HOA attorney, that on Monday, he’d be filing motions for Sanctions and Contempt of Court.

      The lien was released.

      J.J. and Debra sold the Orofino house late in January. On February 3, 2020, they moved into the home they’d just bought, licked their wounds and assessed their losses.

      Money, for sure. “We’ve spent $95,654 to date,” J.J. reports, “money we would otherwise have contributed to charities or caddie scholarship funds or our church. They’re building an extension. I’d have loved to help out.

      “And the final bill is not known. Mediation will likely prove unsuccessful if and when the court rules. If we go to trial, the court costs will likely be another $50,000.   

      Relationship-wise, the two assess they are still good. “Our relationship is very strong,” says J.J.

“It was a lot on a fairly new marriage,” Debra says. “But no, it did not hurt our relationship.”

      Emotionally, it is impossible yet to assess the damage. Stoical and uncomplaining as they both are, Debra and J.J. have suffered. Debra’s traumatic past was triggered. And what happens to a person’s faith in humanity, their social confidence, when an entire neighborhood turns on you, when you have done nothing to them?

      And J.J.?

      Debra speaks hesitantly. “I hate to say this, but I think it has … aged Jim. I have seen him get a touch more … bitter. He’s a little more … tired then he was before.”

Sometimes J.J. remembers—it hits him—all this just because of some flowers and repairing a stone wall!

      But he knows it’s about more than that.

      “We did not know what we were walking into,” J.J. says. “For 20 years, Joseph Gschwendtner and William Calhoun have been the president and vice president of this Orofino HOA. They appear to have created a cult-like environment, just like Jim Jeffers in Utah, Jim Jones in Guyana … a group of people in lockstep who follow them. –  

“It seems as though, as long as you are part of their inner circle, you can violate policies and procedures, cut down trees, have dogs off-leash, whatever you want … “

“It’s an atmosphere of fear,” Debra says firmly. “People are afraid to be outside the group. This should not be allowed to happen.”             J.J. is a private person. So is Debra. “But,” she says, “if telling our story keeps someone from going through what we went through, then I will tell every detail.”

The Analyst

Barb DeHart is a stylish, smart-as-a-whip, retired budget analyst, who, in the 1970s, relocated from Wisconsin to enjoy “an incredible life in Colorado.”

Barb is also that rare breed: someone who speaks out against injustice wherever she sees it. One place she saw injustice was the last Colorado HOA she lived in. At that time, Barb was happily retired from a fulfilling career. She was enjoying splendid days of finally doing what she wanted to do. She attended HOA meetings at this condo, and when she saw things that felt awry, she asked sensible and pointed questions.

Neighbors took note. Of the knowledge that went into Barb’s questions. Of her fearless and forthright manner. They’d heard about Barb’s background in government and finance. “

Neighbors pleaded with Barb to run for the board.

“At first, I didn’t want to,” Barb recalls. “But I’d gotten very fond of the community and the residents. They needed help badly. Finally I agreed. The board president dominated the board and the community with fear and secrecy.

“This man was determined to get me off the board, especially since I was discovering that under his leadership, the board conducted community business with no regard for the Non-profit Corp. Act, or for CCIOA laws.

“The more I discovered, the more this man made my life a Living Hell. He interrupted my investigation of dubious expenditures by announcing, in an aggressive attack at the close of an Executive meeting, that I had “breached confidentiality” and must resign. When I refused, he threatened me, saying my life would be highly uncomfortable if I remained on the board.

“I endured many painful experiences serving on that board. I spent hours each day trying to set up systems or fill in gaps that should have been addressed years or months before. I’d come onto this board with excitement, knowing I had the skills, accrued over my career, to help bring this community to where it should be, with higher standards and much more respect for the people who lived there.

Barb insists: “The most painful thing for me was knowing how much I could help, how well prepared I was to take on that task—yet I was stopped from doing so.

            “During one horrible HOA meeting, I sat up there with the board, while the board president humiliated me by acting as if I was invisible.

“I now live in Las Vegas, which I adore,” says Barb. “I also adore my HOA here. It has lifted my spirits to see how well an HOA can be run.

“In my current condo, I see how valued and respected an HOA can make homeowners feel. With that last experience in Colorado, I saw the worst of what an HOA board can do. “In my new condo in Nevada, I see the best.

“Although the experience on that last Colorado board stuck in my throat for a while—I endured some very ugly experiences—I did not move to Nevada because of what happened. I’d been planning to leave Colorado for some time. I moved because I wanted to.

“I speak up about my experience because if dispute resolution was in place when I was on that Colorado board, the things that happened—to me, and to the community—would not have been able to happen.”

The Caregiver

“I am a 74-year-old woman who has done caregiving for the elderly for many years,” says Linda Chambers, by way of introduction.

Being exceedingly modest, what Linda doesn’t say is she’s the kind of person who takes on the tasks no one else wants to do—without complaining. At the HOA where Linda no longer lives, she was the one who brought you gifts when you were sick, organized theater parties and drove the group there and back. She was the one in whom everyone confided.

 What Linda didn’t confide with many was how much she thought about retirement. She was tired. But as a single, older woman, “I didn’t have many resources except my beautiful condo, and the best resource of all—supportive friends.”

 Then Linda found out about reverse mortgages, which seemed a perfect solution. “I was so happy to discover this possibility. I so wanted to stay where I was, surrounded by friends. With the reverse mortgage, my expenses would be considerably lower. And manageable. I could do this!”

The only obstacle was getting FHA certification for the condo complex.

This was one task Linda couldn’t take on. But the HOA board and management company told everyone they would apply for FHA certification ASAP. A few other neighbors also got interested in reverse mortgages. Linda explained to everyone why they needed FHA certification—“It’s required by HUD, you can’t get this type of loan without it”—and they all waited. The property manager assured homeowners she had completed the FHA certification application. Now everyone had to be patient, she said. “For months, whenever we asked, this manager assured us she was waiting for FHA’s response.

The Target

In 2017, Lucy Lister was walking through her Aurora complex of three-story walkups when she saw a balcony hanging off a building — and a kid climbing on it, apparently playing.  Lucy had already seen enough at the Second Timbers Condo in Aurora—no lights, siding falling off buildings, condo pool out of commission for 30 years—to know their monthly dues weren’t used to keep the property up. But she didn’t get involved until she saw the boy on the balcony in danger and heard the property manager’s shocking response:  “Just a Mexican kid, we don’t need to care about that.”

Lucy couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer. But she’s a smart lady, who knows how to find things out. She decided to put as many hours as it took into understanding her options. She read all the CCIOA statutes. She reads her HOA’s bylaws. She understood that sufficient numbers of homeowners had to vote to change management. So she spent more hours, knocking on doors, introducing herself to neighbors, explaining what needed to be done—and that she didn’t mind doing most of it.

Once she had enough of her fellow homeowners alerted, Lucy rented a room at the Aurora library. During that meeting, she and her neighbors formed a coalition large enough to recall the board. The new board fired the property manager. And things got better! The balconies were fixed, siding got replaced, lights were installed. (“You could actually see around here at night!”)

But something was wrong, Lucy observed. The new board seemed spooked. One board member suddenly up and moved, alluding—before she left—to nefarious goings-on. Other board members quit. Those few who remained on the board … hired the old management company! The one who had let the balconies fall into such unsafe conditions.

Lucy still puzzles over why that new board suddenly acted so strangely. There’s a piece of the puzzle missing. Residents getting “salty” never bothered Lucy. “I’m from Texas. I’m a tough nut.” But what happened next did bother her.

Outside Lucy’s small unit, a towering elm tree grew. She could see it from her kitchen window. Everyone in the community knew how much pleasure Lucy took from that tree. One day—months after Lucy had galvanized the neighbors to make the management company accountable—a crew showed up and began sawing down that tree. Lucy knew it was healthy. “Anyone could see it was healthy!”

And the tree surgeon admitted there was no good reason to take it down.

“What’s going on?” she demanded of the crew, who shrugged and said they were just following orders from the HOA.

Lucy felt the helpless sting of being a target. She loved that tree. It brough her comfort almost every day. Now, the HOA is going through a bush near her window that adds some much-needed greenery to her yard on the arid Front Range. “They don’t like me, cause I don’t close my eyes when children are in danger. I don’t accept things as OK that are not OK.”

She adds, “No one will speak up now. Not since they cut down my tree.”

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