Last Sunday, for reasons that even today I can’t explain, I counted the number of men wearing Hawaiian shirts walking into church. Fourteen had taken their seats by the opening song.
I leave up to the pastor such matters as what proper worship wear is (“At key events in the Gospel, the apostles’ robes were always dry cleaned and pressed”), but somewhere during the sermon my mind did wander back to the shirts, and a question:
Why is it that some people who don’t think palm fronds or hibiscus blossoms are just a tad too barbecue-y are likely the same ones you see pounding on the lectern at a zoning hearing, demanding that the city do something about how his neighbor’s property looks?
I was thinking about an article by Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services that I had just read in that morning’s Tribune, “Ruling opens HOA sculpture dispute to jury decision.”
Fischer reported that the Arizona Court of Appeals is leaving it to a trial court jury to decide these questions: Is a local homeowner’s metal sculpture of a sunglasses-wearing saguaro holding an electric guitar a form of artistic expression, as he contends? Or is it rather a “structure” or “unsightly object” subject to homeowners association rules, as his HOA argues?
While HOAs have their place in subdivisions whose individual dwellings were built and intended to look something like all the others, many of those serving on HOA boards make the classic mistake:
Instead of writing rules that cover most things most of the time, they embark on what seems sometimes like a holy quest to write rules that cover all things, stone tablets and all. (See, I actually did pay attention to the sermon.)
It’s one thing to ban metal storage sheds or even basketball hoops; most reasonable people aren’t going to call such things artistic expression. But when a guy erects a metal saguaro in his yard, puts sunglasses on it and puts an electric guitar in its arm, well, it’s a safe bet he’s not planning to play basketball or store power tools.
And while you can expect a judge to keep a straight face while you describe how the neighbor kids like to congregate at 2:30 a.m. at the basketball hoop next door to dribble and carom the ball off the rim hard and loudly 315 times in a row, it’s quite difficult to expect the same when you testify that your neighbor’s phony saguaro is keeping you up nights.
Playing the property values card is pretty silly even during times of rising home prices. Few if any real estate appraisers are willing to state for the record that they downgraded a house’s value because the people across the street had a metal saguaro in the front yard.
But during these much tougher times, even the finest-looking, followed-every-regulation house on the block just spent the last three years losing half its value to the real estate plunge. So it seems to be conjuring up the well-known attention paid to the arrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic to be discussing neighborhood efforts at artistic expression as a mitigating factor in how much you can get for your place.
But of course, some people still try.
According to Fischer, the HOA in this suit tried calling the saguaro “landscaping.” It also attempted to define the saguaro as a “structure,” but the appellate judges tossed aside that explanation, writing, “Although the CC&Rs do not define ‘structure,’ that word appears in several provisions governing garages, guest houses, new construction, outbuildings, tennis courts, and such things as trailers, tents, shacks, and barns. None of these references include art or sculptures.”
But, as Fischer reported, the decision does allow the association to assert rules that ban signs, billboards and other “unsightly objects” on any of its properties.
And so a jury will decide whether the ersatz cactus is kitschy art or unbearable eyesore. Stay tuned, East Valley HOA members. That birdhouse you just hung in that tree? I’d start adorning it with Campbell’s soup cans so you can claim you’re doing an homage to Andy Warhol.
You might consider wearing a Hawaiian shirt.
• Mark J. Scarp (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Tribune contributing columnist who appears on Sundays.