2013-08-14 / News

Brandermill gardener wins battle with HOA

By Jim McConnell

After a protracted fight, the Brandermill Community Association is allowing Chris Gilson to keep a modified version of his front-yard garden. 
Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer After a protracted fight, the Brandermill Community Association is allowing Chris Gilson to keep a modified version of his front-yard garden. Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer Chris Gilson hopes his successful battle to keep a garden in the front yard of his family’s Brandermill home has planted seeds for improved relations between the community’s residents and its homeowners association.

At its monthly meeting last week, the Brandermill Community Association’s board of directors approved an agreement that will allow Gilson to maintain a slightly modified version of his controversial garden.

The board also voted to rescind all fines that Gilson and his wife, Teresa Collier, had been assessed for failing to comply with a ruling by Brandermill’s architectural review board.

“The association has rules and restrictions in order to protect property values; however, that does not mean that those rules cannot or should not be modified to reflect changes in our culture, society, and the way we live today,” said a statement issued by the BCA last week.

“The BCA Board of Directors has demonstrated its recognition of this fact through the way they have handled the Gilson/Collier issue. In short, the association is willing to work to chart a new path into the future that recognizes change and improvement to the community’s governing documents that reflect the interests and needs of the residents.”

The community association will permit Gilson to keep his garden in its current form until Dec. 31. After that point, he’ll have to move his vegetable plants closer to his house.

According to last week’s ruling, Gilson can grow vegetables in an area halfway from the front of his house to the street, and halfway from the right side of his house to his property line.

“I’m happy with the compromise,” Gilson said during an interview last week. “I think most people are reasonable. If the BCA can communicate better with residents, they can solve a lot of problems instead of just handing out violations.”

Gilson and Collier, who bought a house in Brandermill’s Court Ridge neighborhood nearly 11 years ago, began planting flowers, vegetables and herbs in their front yard after multiple unsuccessful attempts to grow grass.

For nearly a decade, the Gilson family tended to its garden with no complaints from neighbors or the community association.

That changed in May 2012, when Gilson and Collier received a notice of violations from Brandermill’s Community Standards department.

Included in that notice was a requirement that they either submit an application to the architectural review board for the “raised planting bed” in their front yard or have it removed.

The review board denied their application. The community association, however, approved Gilson’s request to keep the garden until the end of the 2012 growing season.

The garden wasn’t removed. On May 23 of this year, a hearing panel ruled against Gilson and Collier and informed them that if the garden wasn’t removed by June 14, they’d be fined $10 per day for 90 days or until the property was brought into compliance.

At the crux of the dispute was language in Brandermill’s restrictive property covenants, which were drawn up nearly 40 years ago.

Gilson contended that the Brandermill covenants don’t specifically prohibit homeowners from planting gardens in their front yards.

He also cited a passage in the covenants that limit the community association’s ability to regulate “normal, minor landscaping decisions of the homeowner,” such as adding plants, planting grass, ground cover or gardens.

The covenants do, however, specify that “formal landscape designs,” such as flower or vegetable gardens must be approved by the architectural review board.

That panel, which already had ruled that Gilson’s garden constituted a “formal landscape design,” denied his appeal on July 9.

“The ARB didn’t want to compromise at all,” Gilson said. “We were told that they’d never approve a garden in the front yard.”

Noting that the Brandermill community was divided over the garden, Brandermill Community Association directors Charlie Davis and Bob Malek met with Gilson at his home last month and worked out a mutually beneficial solution.

As a result of the Gilson case, the association’s board adopted the following language to guide future changes to the association’s residential design standards: “In principle, vegetable and/or fruit gardens shall be limited to the back yards of homes. If there are space or growing condition limitations, side yards are the next preferred option before front yards may be utilized.”

Based on comments made during last week’s meeting, the board won’t abandon that newly proactive approach now that the controversial Gilson case is in its rear-view mirror.

“We’ll look at the language in the residential design standards and see if we can’t produce some clarity for everyone going forward,” said John Bailey, community manager of the Brandermill Community Association.

The board announced in June that it would review and update its covenants. It also changed its policy with regard to covenant violations. Brandermill residents charged with such violations now are notified immediately in writing of their right to appeal prior to imposing fines.

After increasing complaints from residents that the association arbitrarily enforces covenants and residential design standards, the board intends to get more involved in resolving disputes.

“We can always improve,” Bailey added. “The documents can be improved. Residents can be more involved. Staff can improve communication. We’re all going to get better.”

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