Denver neighborhood tiff over yard sign is just the beginning

A quick drive through Denver’s Lowry neighborhood late last week was akin to a voyage through a haven of tranquility and quiet, with rows of homes fronted by tidy lawns and smiling, helmeted families biking down tree-lined streets.

But just 48 hours prior, this community on the city’s east side was at the center of a sharp dispute over the limits of free expression in the midst of what is shaping up to be one of the nastiest, bare-knuckle election seasons in recent memory.

“In the current climate, with a lot of these social justice issues in the spotlight, I think it is important for our family to show our support and beliefs in these issues,” said Melissa Steele, a 14-year resident of the neighborhood, who has a sign in her yard declaring support for Black lives, women’s rights and science. “I think it’s a time when we need to be dealing with these issues.”

But the Lowry Community Master Association, the homeowners association that oversees the nearly 2,600 homes that sit on former site of the Lowry Air Force Base, wasn’t as open to the idea. It sent letters to Steele and some of her neighbors telling them they had to take down their signs per the HOA’s policy forbidding unauthorized displays of any kind outside of a strictly defined political season.

After a few headlines and news stories on the controversy, the Lowry board of directors in a special meeting Wednesday night reversed themselves and amended their sign code.

“Given the exigent circumstances and the board’s desire to help our community express support for issues they endorse, the LCMA has amended the community signage policy to allow two yard signs,” the board said in a statement. “This policy is effective today, September 3, 2020.”

State law leaves sign regulation largely up to homeowner associations, except from 45 days prior to an election to seven days after the vote, during which citizens can display “a sign that carries a message intended to influence the outcome of an election, including supporting or opposing the election of a candidate, the recall of a public official, or the passage of a ballot issue.”

Last week’s about-face will likely not be the last time HOAs and politics clash, especially as this November’s election approaches amid a deadly global pandemic and protests and violence over racial justice issues. Molly Foley-Healy, an attorney who has long represented homeowners associations in Colorado, said the governing bodies are in a no-win situation when it comes to balancing the desire to enhance property values by maintaining a consistent aesthetic while at the same time allowing homeowners to express themselves.

“Because of the culture wars we’re having and the extreme passion people feel on any side of these issues, for an HOA board to attempt to police these positions is unenviable, to say the least,” she said. “I would call on all owners living in HOAs to be sensitive to their neighbors and their board of directors.”

In most cases, HOAs aren’t targeting what the sign says, Foley-Healy said, “but the existence of the sign.”

But Heather Luehrs, a Lowry resident, said she received a letter to take down her yard signs only after she recently planted a Black Lives Matter display in her grass. She said she had had a sign welcoming people to the neighborhood on display for two years before that.

“What saddened me is that the Black Lives Matter sign got this going,” she said.

In an email, the Lowry Community Master Association said it enforces its sign policy without regard to politics or positions, issuing violations this year for displays supporting teachers and health care workers, graduation acknowledgments, and pleas to conserve water.

The dispute in Lowry is far from the first of its kind. Three years ago, a Loveland man made news when he refused his HOA’s orders to take down an early American flag painted on wood that was hanging on his home. Eight years before that faceoff, a woman fought her HOA in Boulder after it told her to remove a sign she had put in front of her house proclaiming her opposition to mass slaughter in the Darfur region of Sudan.

And in 2006, an HOA in Pagosa Springs apologized to a couple for threatening to fine them $25 a day for displaying a wreath that had been fashioned into the shape of the peace sign. The wreath had been characterized by HOA leaders as a divisive symbol that violated the subdivision rules against displaying signs or advertisements.

Bridget Sebern, executive director of the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Community Associations Institute, said homeowners agree to HOA rules when they move into an association-governed community.

“While some of these rules may conflict with unfettered expression, these rules are in place to preserve the character of a community, protect property values and meet the established expectations of residents,” she said. “One person’s free speech might be a neighbor’s eyesore. In all cases of disagreement, we encourage open dialogue, flexibility and, when possible, compromise.”

Luehrs said she hopes the brouhaha in Lowry last week will prompt vigorous debate and discussion that leads to consensus on what’s acceptable and what’s not when it comes to wearing one’s politics on one’s sleeve.

“This doesn’t mean it’s the end of the conversation — it means it’s the beginning of the conversation,” she said.

Source: Read Full Article