Monday, August 20, 2007

Neighborhood Association Gone Wild!

Shame on me. I moved to the Original Highlands neighborhood a year and a month ago. I joined the neighborhood association (for the whopping cost of $8 yearly dues) last September, but I just managed to drag my behind to my first meeting of the Original Highlands Neighborhood Association (OHNA). And it was, in short, a freak show.

According to a co-worker and fellow OHNA member, the previous meeting was even worse. I can hardly imagine.

Forgive me, gentle readers. My civic awareness is somewhat limited to what I have read in neighborhood newsletters, newspapers, and online neighborhood plans. I read some time ago, early spring perhaps, that the OHNA was pursuing the idea of designating the neighborhood as an official Historic Preservation Neighborhood, I liked the idea, and I left it at that. Little did I know that this issue would pit neighbor against neighbor and sow the ugly seeds of conflict, lawsuits, clandestine dealings, and suggestions of impeachment.

The first I heard of the conflict was when “LANDMARKS EQUALS DEED RESTRICTIONS” yellow yard signs started popping up in the ‘hood. (Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t that grammatically incorrect? It’s been grating on me. Landmarks (plural) EQUAL, right??)

Then I was gone most of the summer. When I returned, I got an OHNA newsletter that reprinted a letter from the attorney of a Highlands resident that was essentially a “cease and desist” order, demanding that any pursuit of the Landmark designation be halted. Signatures had been gathered; objections had been raised.

Further to that, several days later, I received an email from the OHNA president that despite the fact that they had “ceased and desisted” that the aforementioned resident was threatening a lawsuit and seeking, essentially, impeachment of the president of the Board.

Curiosity peaked and hackles raised by the belligerent and fear-mongering tone of both letters from the attorney, I decided that I would attend my first neighborhood association meeting tonight.

I sat in the hot auditorium of the Metropolitan Community Church, next to my coworker/fellow Highlander, and gazed in desperate sympathy upon the seemingly mild-mannered president, knowing that as he ticked off agenda items, he grew ever closer to the time marked “Community Concerns.” Park renovations? Check. Good stuff. Garden Club report? Sympathetic pregnant woman looked worried as though she might draw ire. September festival report? Sounds great. It’s a big deal.

The moment for Community Concerns came early due to the no-show of some council people and the LMPD guy who’s supposed to give a crime report. First hand up and my stomach churned. But it’s a reasonable older guy concerned that since the smoking ban Willy’s sidewalk seating has pushed so far into the sidewalk that his wheel-chair-bound relative can’t navigate past. Reasonable request. Reasonably handled.

What ensued was far from reasonable. Lawyer stood up and asked to make some motions before the membership. Lawyer for the OHNA countered that the by-laws say that motions can only be made before the Board and are not up for membership vote. Only elections are up for neighborhood vote. Shouting followed.

Lawyer read her motions anyway. The same one that were in the email letter. No more pursing the Historic Preservation status. Board countered that they had voted unanimously AGAINST pursuing the Historic Preservation status last week. Huh. Okay, issue over right? No no no no.

Motion to impeach president for misconduct. More reiteration of the motion about ceasing the pursuit of the Preservation district. Shouting about distrust for the board. Something about “absolute power corrupting.” On and on. Inability to get appropriate records of membership from the board. Hollering about funds mismanaged. More harping on the pursuit that had already been abandoned. Insulting of wives. Suggestions of conflicts of interest because Board President is married to the head of the September festival. People standing on chairs. Aforementioned pregnant head of the Garden Club speaking so passionately and tearily that I was sure her water would break right there. Shouting about the fact that all these folks show up only to bitch when the usual OHNA meeting attendance is around a dozen folks. And so on…

Okay, my two or ten or fifty cents…?

The basis for the lawsuit is that the president of the OHNA wrote an editorial in the neighborhood newsletter recommending going on with the Preservation status even though the cease & desist letter had been sent. But the newsletter was at the printers when the letter was received. And, as he said, it doesn’t matter anyway because he’s entitled to his opinion. I agree with that.

Is the OHNA board in the clear? Not entirely. It does seem as though they’ve made it very difficult to get vital information to people with civic concerns, like the roster of the OHNA membership and the by-laws of OHNA. That’s not good. And while I don’t excuse them for it, it seems to me that they serve the neighborhood for FREE (correct me if I am wrong!) and that it takes a lot of time to get such stuff organized. And, let’s face it folks, we pay EIGHT DOLLARS A YEAR as dues. We can only expect so much.

On the issue itself: I am a newcomer to the neighborhood, but I am a homeowner, a taxpayer, and an OHNA member. And I bought my house specifically because it is 101 years old. In fact, when I told my real estate agent what I was looking for, #1 on my list was: “must be an older home, preferably MUCH older.”

I did not buy my historic home for the sloping floors, the invasion of mice during the winter, the fact that I had to rip out cabinets and rewire my kitchen just to install a dishwasher, the fact that I can’t hang heavy artwork on the crumbly plaster walls…

I bought my historic home for the beautiful bones that all older homes have. And yes, I bought it for the status—I like to be able to say that my house was built in 1906. I like to lie awake on sleepless nights and think of all the people who have lived in my home. And I like that I can glance up and down my block and see homes that also have stood for a hundred years or more. I came here from New Orleans. I grew up in New England. I am accustomed to cities and neighborhoods with historic weight. I’d sooner go back to apartment living (hopefully an apartment in a historic building) than live in new-built home. I accept the responsibilities and extra cost related to living in a historic home.

Likewise, I accept the responsibilities related to living in a historic neighborhood. I know that if the Historic Preservation designation passed, I would have to fast-track fixing up my falling-down garage. And I know that I could never house my plastic pink flamingoes in my front yard (they can be resplendent in the back). Those responsibilities are a trade-off for the security of knowing that my neighbor cannot pave over her front yard (you can laugh, but when my ex-husband and I bought our home in NOLA, the front yard was concrete—we immediately ripped it out). A trade-off for the security of knowing that the landlord can’t tear down the four-plex across the street and turn it into a modern McMansion. And I believe that the benefit for having to keep my house looking nice and saving my kitschy inclinations for more private displays is raised property values—which I could use… big time.

No matter what I believe, I know that some of my neighbors behaved deplorably at this meeting. Battle lines were drawn. What appalled me the most was the lack of civility shown by the anti-preservationists. If I had come into that meeting on the fence about the issue, there would have been nothing on God’s green earth that could have compelled me to take their side. I could never ally myself with those who engage in personal attacks and blatant fear-mongering. What a shame—this may be an odd thing to say, but what a shame that their point of view has to be represented publicly by inarticulate shouting and name-calling. If they have a valid objection, it would have benefited all of us had said objection been voiced reasonably and without melodrama.

My suggestion on the issue? When in Post-Katrina New Orleans, neighborhoods had to decide whether or not they would put their efforts into creating a neighborhood plan for neighborhoods that had been, effectually, destroyed by the hurricane, they went door-to-door and asked people if they wanted to come back. The OHNA should employ an impartial service to survey the neighborhood, door to door, member of the OHNA or not. Ask every homeowner (frankly, renters should have no say) if he or she wants the Preservation district to go forward. Do not rest until as close to 100% of the homeowners have been polled. And then go forward OR NOT as per a majority.

Shame on all of them. The board dropped the ball on some issues certainly. But few people deserve to be spoken to with such disrespect and lack of regard for civility... it was a truly embarrassing display. I have vowed to attend as many OHNA meetings as I can henceforth. And I will do all that I can to keep the shouters OFF of the board.


John Riddick said...

Sorry, it took me a day to recover from the meeting. Thank you for coming out the other night and documenting your thoughts on the meeting. Your writing style is excellent! Bottom line - the OHNA is maturing as an organization and we need to shore up our internal processes which you point out! I suspect we will continue to improve.

thekeithbehr said...

I understand and agree with you, things got way out of hand at that meeting. As one of the "shouters" I have apologized to those who I have encountered, and take this opportunity to apologize to everyone involved for my part in the disgraceful behavior.

In short, much of what you say is what the "opposition" has been saying from the beginning. I will go along with something that has a majority vote of the people affected. The Ordinance, however, calls for signatures of 200 residents (renters included, one of our complaints) not a majority referendum and the board did not want to explore what the neighborhood as a whole wanted. John Riddick still doesn't, he feels he knows better and will push this through personally instead of as the OHNA. I purchased here because it is NOT a designated neighborhood. It is a historic district already, but does not have landmark designation; giving me the character and charm my neighbors and I want without the restrictions that are so burdensome. Having dealt with landmarks in the past, as well as having talked to people in the old Louisville neighborhood, I am not convinced that there is not an added burden with the landmarks commission. If people want the added burden, they should move to such a neighborhood and stop trying to change the neighborhood we love (as it is) or get out and speak to the entire neighborhood. I have knocked on every door in the neighborhood several times and have talked to many people, both for and against. The “opposition” has made every effort to inform and let people decide for themselves, by distributing copies of the ordinance and neighborhood plan when asked for, something the board did not do. The Landmarks literature actually states that it is equal to a deed restriction, thus the signs to get people’s attention and have people read the information themselves and get involved, one way or the other.

You stated, "The OHNA should employ an impartial service to survey the neighborhood, door to door, member of the OHNA or not. Ask every homeowner (frankly, renters should have no say) if he or she wants the Preservation district to go forward. Do not rest until as close to 100% of the homeowners have been polled. And then go forward OR NOT as per a majority." As I just stated, that is what people outside the board have done because the board had refused too. I am tired of being told things that are not true and being accused of giving false information. What I have been part of is giving the actual ordinance to the people interested. I am not against preserving historic homes; I am against being told I have to and how that should be done. And unlike some people, I am willing to sign my name.

May the entire neighborhood have a voice,

Keith Behr

JVLN said...

As a renter in this neighborhood for over 17 years could someone explain to me just why I shouldn't have a say in what goes on here? I asked my landlord(who lives in Simpsonville) if he had a problem with historic designation and he said he had no problem with it one way or another.Now would you elitist jerks rather have someone living in Simpsonville dictating what goes on here or can you accept the fact that I have every right to determine my surroundings? I love the Original Highlands and decided to set down roots here. And you would deny me the right to engage in bettering my neighborhood just because I don't hold a deed??? You people need to get a life.

jscs said...

Renters voting is as simple as this: One lot, four apartments equals four votes. One lot should only have one voice (or two if there are two homeowners). But a lot with 12 apartments shouldn't get twelve votes. Simply not fair. And, yes, I personally would rather have the homeowner vote whether he lives in town or not. It's not elitist, friend. Just logical and fair. So while you certainly deserve a vote for seventeen years of living in OH... it can't be, in my mind, reasoned that all renters get a vote. But I don't make the rules. Just my opinion. It's not about elitism. You don't know me (or my friend the blogger) or you wouldn't name call. Well, maybe you would, but elitist wouldn't be the name.

Anonymous said...

Cute title – “Neighborhood Association Gone Wild”, but I think the post misses some very important questions.

1) Have you even read the Historic Preservation Ordinance that you seem to be in favor of? At the beginning of all this I spoke with a Board Member who admitted he had not even read it.
2) I am not “Anti-Preservation”, quite the contrary, but again, I urge everyone to READ THE ORDINANCE.
3) The OHNA sent a separate survey around the neighborhood about parking, but no such polling took place regarding Historic Preservation…why not?
4) Why did Crescent Hill reject Historic Preservation Designation?
5) Why was the “Informational Panel Discussion” presented at Traditional Middle School loaded with individuals who are not only in favor of designation, but most of whom also earn their livings through such activity?
6) Who should have a vote in matters pertaining to property ownership and rights? Should renters have the same weight as owners? Should multiple residents per property have greater weight of opinion than a single person living in their own home?
7) Granted that $8 is not that much money, should we really have to pay a fee in order to vote for elected officials whose decisions will affect our neighborhood and property status?
8) Should OHNA be transparent? How do you feel about closed Board meetings off the record with no published minutes?

I am glad you pointed out that OHNA could not provide a membership list, nor are the By-Laws clear and clean. That is not a minor detail since issues of quorum and procedure are reliant on both.

The silver lining to this cloud is that the neighborhood is now wide awake and an excellent opportunity exists for genuine education, and through review. Under a democratic process (ie – majority opinions and desires) we can actually determine what course of action to follow regarding Historic Preservation Designation as well as other topics of concern and interest in the community.

M said...

I had no idea that this blog got "passed around" until recently. I'm a bit taken aback.

That being said, in response: I reiterate that this was the first meeting I've attended, and I disparaged myself for that fact in the first paragraph of the orginal entry. I should be more involved and henceforth I will be.

I did, however, read the Ordinance online. So I didn't enter into the debate blindly. I will include a link to the ordinance on the main blog so that others may also read it and judge for themselves.

Thank you to jscs for coming to my defense. I echo his statement about renters-- two renters in the same dwelling should not be able to out-vote an owner with one name on her lease. And this means that my roommate, despite having put as much TLC into my house as I have, would not have a vote. Is there a way to get around it? Make the most senior renter in a dwelling spokesperson for everyone who rents there? Perhaps. But Historic Preservation DOES require financial responsibility, and landlords typically take on that responsibility. In my opinion, yes, even though the landlord is out of town, if he or she is paying for the upkeep of the home, then he or she ought to be the one who votes.

Again, I reiterate the fact that the last meeting was my first, so I am not as familiar with the workings of this board as many of you are. It's my understanding that my $8 goes to help support neighborhood projects and is not a fee paid so I can vote. Voting is a priveledge that I am granted for supporting my neighborhood.

I do think OHNA should be transparent. But I also think that the Board should be able to meet on its own as long as it provides minutes to the public. I think it would be bad form for the Board to preside over open meetings without having set its agenda and pre-discussed issues. As a teacher, I try not to set foot in my classroom without having decided what I was going to do in class. Neither should the Board show up to public meetings and just wing it.

That's all for now. I thank all of you for your input. When I wrote the blog, I was more upset with the incivility of the meeting than the actual issues at hand. (and I'm super impressed that Mr. Behr was so honest in his comment, thank you) I do support the district and will continue to do so. I have, as I said, read the 17 page beast of a boring document and come to that conclusion. I urge you all to read it if you haven't. And I hope that we can all move forward with more democracy and diplomacy.

M said...

The link to the Ordinance is on today's blog entry. Sorry, I can't figure out how to hyperlink from the comments page.

Anonymous said...

You people crack me up, all your doing is fighting for the mushroom growing out of a pile of shit. Most of the houses need to be torn down and those that dont never will be. This is all nothing more then a waste of time except for those who profit from it which is illeal. This has gone way past private laywers its being looked into offically and not just in the highlands. Just a heads up there is no gag order on this crime yet so I can speak freely sorry that I cant sign my name jerry wouldnt like that to much. I cant wait for part two of this when people start going to jail.

jscs said...

"Most the houses need to be torn down."

See why we want Landmark Desination? And you say "we" are full of shit?? (Lou... is this blog child friendly?) (And crime... jail... are the black helicopters next?)

M said...


I guess that depends on the child, eh?

I'm pretty sure it's safe to say that children wouldn't be all that interested in discussions of historic preservation. Although, they might-- if given the chance-- enter into a MORE MATURE dialogue about it than I've seen thus far!

(Please, don't point out the hypocrisy inherent in that statement. It's just a joke!)