- - Monday, March 10, 2014

The federal government has no equal in imposing intrusive, burdensome and annoying laws. State governments are usually more accommodating, because they’re closer to the governed, and the federal government has usurped so much of the authority over everything.

But the best government may not necessarily be the government closest at hand. Sometimes a little authority can swell the softest head.

A Google search of “homeowners association nightmare” yields more than 30,000 results, suggesting that many of the 60 million Americans living in communities that share common interests and common property are not always happy about it.

Living under the rules of an association to ensure the neighborhood is maintained to high standards, with contented and cooperative neighbors, can be pleasant indeed. But when someone gets to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not in such a community, common sense is often the first to flee.

In Lafayette, La., an association penalized a family last month for putting out a “welcome home” sign for a sailor returning from a long deployment overseas.

The sign was within size restrictions, but the homeowners board decided the family had kept it up “too long.” In Katy, Texas, a family battled its association over a small wooden cross it added to a fake shutter “to make it look nicer.” The association called it a “religious item” and banned it.

One of the most absurd flights of common sense wracked the Olde Belhaven community in Fairfax County, Va., in 2008, when a couple put up an Obama for President sign that was four inches too tall.

One thing led to another, and before the dispute was over more than $400,000 was spent on lawyers. The community was forced into bankruptcy.

When these feuds break out, the association usually has the advantage. It can impose steep fines, and if the homeowner won’t pay on principle, his house can be seized.

The original version of the legislation by the Virginia House of Delegates allowed associations to impose such fines even if they were not agreed to in the founding documents of the community. The legislation authorized the association to cut off Internet access and even electricity until the fines are paid.

A coalition of Tea Party Republicans and liberal Democrats worked to water down the most offensive parts of the bill — a rare bipartisan victory for common sense — but they could have used more water, because the legislation still makes it easier for communities to file lawsuits against residents.

The General Assembly and Gov. Terry McAuliffe have an opportunity to do more, to revise state law to limit the authority of associations and make it easier for residents to challenge boards before a feud gets out of hand.

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