Homeowners associations changing the faces of today's neighborhoods

Homeowners associations were a mysterious surprise when I encountered them decades ago. 

I grew up in a small town neighborhood where they were non-existent. Most people kept their houses up out of pride and utilitarian function. 

My folks had a fine backyard garden that produced tomatoes and sweet corn. They planted whatever flowers seemed nice. A rock garden with stones collected on family vacations gradually grew near the back door. The compost pile that contributed greatly to the garden’s fertility was tucked in behind some backyard shrubs. No problem backing the boat in behind the garage. 

This house held love and functional comforts.

But all that would be forbidden in many neighborhoods with home owners or condo associations. The Kansas City Star recently outlined conflicts between home owners and the associations that rule them. Some things I expected and some were surprises. I had no idea that some associations could level fines for leaving a garage door open or seize a home due to unpaid dues.

This is an interesting topic for Platte County. 

Because many residents live in neighborhoods guided by associations, and the majority of the county is yet to be built out and far more are yet to come. That’s unless trends change. 
The Star quoted data saying 2.1 million people lived within associations in 1970, a figure that had risen to 68 million by 2015. Remember the bulk of the county’s growth has occurred since 1980.

I was a bit surprised to see The Star’s story because it’s seemed like associations had become as inevitable as paint on a house. Critics argued that more oversight of them is needed.

Supporters say they are generally beneficial protectors of property values and quality of life. 
I applaud the story because most people buying a home today in our county are going to deal with them.

Homeowners associations were mostly just words to me for years. I’d been blessed to live in the country as a renter and then as a home buyer.

But then, back in the late 1980s, I visited a friend living in a new subdivision in Lenexa. We walked from his house to his kid’s school for a program. I noticed the sidewalks and street coated thick with yellow lawn fertilizer pellets. 


The homeowners association required everyone to participate in and pay for a single lawn care company to spray the stuff from a truck as they drove down the street. It was wasteful. 

The unnecessary fertilizer contributes to water pollution problems from local creeks to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. And there was a significant loss of freedom of choice. All so everyone’s yard would look exactly alike and all would have to mow often regardless of weather and soil health.

From then on, homeowners associations were on my watch list. I’ve had friends who moved to escape them.

I remember hearing a refrain often in the 1990s as the county’s growth began to accelerate.

“We don’t want to look like Johnson County,” people would say. They were rebelling against the boring blandness in subdivision construction and lawn landscaping, but that’s the same way most new growth in Platte County looks now because it packages up nice and neat for developers to sell. 

Buyers have limited options so they buy.

I would like it if it was half each. So those who wanted to be ruled by associations could, and those who wanted to be creative in their front yard gardens could do so.

Author Richard Louv in his landmark book, “Last Child Left in the Woods,” argued that overly restrictive homeowner covenants had helped to separate children from nature. And that separation is unhealthy for the child and society. 

When homemade tree houses and lilac bushes are banned because many people see homes as mostly a financial investment to be protected by conformity, children suffer.

A friend’s sons cobbled some lumber and sticks together into a tree house in a wooded draw behind their Lee’s Summit home. It was supposedly a green-friendly subdivision. Few could even see it, but someone complained that it violated the rules. They received notice that they were encouraging vagrants, even though there were no homeless people within 20 miles. 

The creative, natural-play tree house came down. 

Some people just want to get along. Others occupy their troubled minds by exerting their energies toward making sure no neighbors allow a dandelion to broach the dreary monotony of every blade of grass being exactly the same. 

The Greatest Generation used a creative, make-do attitude to overcome the Great Depression. Our millennial generation must overcome the depressing sameness and loss of freedom the homes association movement created.

Bill Graham, who lives in the Platte City area, may be reached by e-mail at editor@plattecountycitizen.com.