Cary homeowners rebel, oust board

Staff WriterJanuary 22, 2006 

Revolutions happen in the suburbs.

Just ask the people of the Parkway subdivision in west Cary. Earlier this month, a band of insurgents staged a coup d'etat and purged the 1,682-home association's entire board.

The rebels said they struck to end the brief reign of the board's manager, Ed Link. For four months, Link scrutinized their fences, mailboxes and yards with a zeal that some had never experienced before -- and clearly did not appreciate.

Grass-roots rebellions against homeowners associations are rare, even though more than half of North Carolina's homeowners live under an association. Most people "don't want to get involved" with their association until dues increase or the board starts aggressively enforcing neighborhood rules, said Jim Laumann, president of the Homeowner Associations of North Carolina.

"If everything's going along smoothly, then they're the silent majority," he said. "But if things get out of control, then they're not hesitant to speak up and get involved."

In the Parkway subdivision, the homeowners association had long been an afterthought for the commuters, retirees and stay-at-home parents who have spent $200,000 or more to buy houses there. There was little to get worked up about; the subdivision's 24 neighborhoods were usually quiet, and most folks kept their lawns tidy, their homes painted and their boats somewhere else.

Folks began to buzz about the association in October, after the board made Link the association's day-to-day manager. In a letter to residents, board members wrote that it was "a brilliant new beginning" that would be marked by stronger enforcement of the subdivision's appearance rules.

Link, a retired financial executive from New York, took to the job with a passion. He took complaints seven days a week. He quit going to the gym and got his exercise by riding around the subdivision on his bike, examining properties for overgrown grass, peeling paint and other rule violations. He sent out letters, including one to property owner Richard Stetter telling him to plant shrubs in front of a fence.

"It became, for the first time in my life, a chance to be happy with my work," Link said, "to do what I wanted to do."

He considered himself "a gift to this community" because he was helping spruce up the neighborhood and make the homeowners association more professional. Plus, he said he worked for what he considered a reasonable price, about $40,000 a year.

He won accolades from people who thought the association needed to come down harder on scofflaws.

"I've seen him riding his bicycle around the neighborhood, just making sure that people were doing what they should," said Ken Girodias, a consultant. "I appreciated his efforts to keep the neighborhood looking good."

But others considered Link a nit-picking tyrant. Brian Butler began to complain after Link demanded, at the behest of the board, that he cut a couple of feet from his new, 6-foot-tall backyard fence.

"It just didn't make much sense," Butler said, especially because neighborhood rules permit fences like his. "We just thought it was unfair."

Butler's wife heard other complaints about Link from neighbors when she walked their dog.

By late November, about a dozen disgruntled Parkway residents were going door-to-door like Jehovah's Witnesses, armed with clipboards, pens and proxy forms. They wanted to put two of their own on the association's five-person board.

"The challenge was getting people to answer the door because they thought we were salesmen," said Dana Hogan, an information technology engineer. "When we got an answer at the door, probably 85 to 90 percent said, 'Yeah, I'll sign your proxy.' "

Hogan joined the group after Link sent a letter chiding him for putting a swing set in his back yard where it could be seen from the street.

There were other gripes.

Some did not like the $6 annual dues increase required, in part, to pay Link's salary. Others thought it fishy that the board hired its former treasurer and gave him $40,000 a year for a job another company had been doing for about $26,000. (Board members said Link earned the money by doing work the previous manager refused.)

The malcontents' ambitions grew to rebellion after their stack of proxies topped 900, the majority needed to take control of the entire board.

They staged the coup at the association's annual meeting in Peace Presbyterian Church. Many in the crowd of 100 came to shout complaints about Link, prompting Girodias, Link's friend and supporter, to describe it as "an I-hate-Ed meeting."

Butler, the man who clashed with Link over his fence, wielded the insurgents' weapon: a section of the bylaws that allows a majority of the association to remove board members for any cause. With a motion and a second, the rebels took over the homeowners association.

Link resigned soon after the meeting. He said he could not work with the new board.

"It was an amazing feat; you've got to give them credit," Link said. "What drives somebody that strong is a mystery."

Call it dissatisfaction. Call it American tradition. Whatever you call it, remember that it still can spark revolt, even in the suburbs.

Staff writer Toby Coleman can be reached at 829-8937 or tcoleman@newsobserver.com.

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