Peaceful rock garden installed for injured child draws HOA’s ire
Neighborhood Overwatch, part two | Too much power with too little oversight is how a local senator describes HOAs.
ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Valerie Ghant’s world stopped when her phone rang on a sunny Friday afternoon in July 2015.
Her 19-year-old daughter, Asia, was the victim of a hit-and-run in Columbus, Georgia, “and to get a call and just to see the car, it was just something I’ll definitely never, never forget,” Ghant said.
“When I arrived, they were using the jaws of life - the top of the car was cut out - and they were taking her and they told me I had to meet them at the hospital,” Ghant said.
That was eight years ago but for Ghant, the wounds are still fresh. Asia suffered a traumatic brain injury. She can’t walk or talk. Most of her time is now spent at doctors’ appointments or at home, where Ghant tries her best to make her daughter feel comfortable and calm. The family lives in south Fulton County, near the city of the same name.
After a doctor prescribed horticultural therapy, Ghant didn’t think twice about installing a rock garden with a water feature in her front yard. But she should have.
The Walden Park Community Association sent Ghant a “cease and desist notice,” telling her she violated the HOA’s covenants, adding the garden was installed without “prior written approval.”
Once Ghant became aware that she needed written approval, she submitted an application to the HOA’s Architectural Review Board. However, that request was denied.
When Ghant did not remove the garden, the HOA’s attorney told her she would be fined $25 a day “for the unauthorized installation of the water feature and palm trees.” That was a little over two years ago.
“We’re talking about planting trees and flowers and doing something in my mind to beautify where we’re staying,” Ghant said. “It’s not an eyesore. It’s not about devaluing. It doesn’t devalue anything. So what is this really about?”
Stories like Ghant’s have caught the attention of state Sen. Donzella James (D-Atlanta), who has long advocated for HOA reform and oversight, and who plans to re-introduce legislation during next January’s legislative session. James already has two committee meetings scheduled to address housing issues.
“This is hurting people,” James said. “It’s crazy, but it’s the law and they get away with it. So, we need to change the law so that it’ll be a fair law.”
Award-winning investigative reporter Rachel Polansky takes you Behind the Investigation
James’ legislation will include establishing an ombudsman’s office to handle HOA and homeowner disputes, outside of the courtroom. An ombudsman is an official, usually appointed by the government, who investigates complaints and attempts to resolve them.
According to the Community Association Institute, seven states currently have ombudsman’s offices or similar programs: Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, Virginia, and South Carolina.
“It works in the courts, it works everywhere,” James said. “It would work, especially with HOAs.”
As for Ghant, she’s hired an attorney. Now, she’s waiting for a court date, after the Walden Park Community Association hit her with a $23,000 lawsuit. The association did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
“To me, that is crazy that I’ve had to assert energy towards that when, you know, my daughter needs my time,” Ghant said. “It’s total abuse of power and it’s a situation that should not have happened.”
Ghant said if she could do it all over again, she wouldn’t buy a home in an HOA community.
But Atlanta News First Investigates uncovered that depending where you live, you might not have many options. In 2021, 82 percent of newly built homes sold were a part of a homeowners association, according to the U.S. Census. Currently, 2.2 million Georgians are living in HOA communities, according to the Community Associations Institute.
If there’s something you would like Atlanta News First investigative reporter Rachel Polansky to dig into, email her at Rachel.Polansky@wanf.com.
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