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The plight of the condo

by Brian Clarey

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In the placid vales of north Greensboro, tucked amid tony subdivisions, well-kept apartment complexes and four of Guilford County’s six lakes, sits Whitehall at Richland Creek, a 150-unit condominium complex built in 1998 by Kavanagh Homes. Kavanagh, a family-owned business from here in the Piedmont, did business for more than 20 years in the state, according to its website, with “honesty, integrity and a commitment to excellence.”

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A drive through Whitehall’s serpentine streets reveals clean one- and two-story structures of brick and shingle, with clipped green lawns and neatly trimmed hedgery. It looks almost like a movie set, so idyllic and calm is its appearance.

That’s what Bill Harper saw when he first encountered Whitehall during his search for a modest home. He had been living out in the county, in a large house on a big lot, removed from the city and the more dense patches of population. He wanted a place where he could live comfortably, with open space and room for a home office where he could run his business. He didn’t want to be bothered with landscaping or maintenance, and he yearned for a social community where he would know his neighbors’ names and they would know his. A condominium fit all these requirements.

Harper moved to Greensboro from Amherst, NH, like many people because of a job relocation, in November 2000. Within six months the company, Select Telemarketing, had gone out of business and Harper decided to go it on his own.

“Because I work in my home,” he says, “I wanted some space. I didn’t want to feel claustrophobic.”

When he first saw the unit at 8 Scotridge Pointe in Whitehall, walked through the spacious greatroom, explored the upstairs rooms, “My jaw hit the floor,” he says. It was an end unit, abutting the creek and a grassy, open lot, with three bedrooms and two full bathrooms, a fireplace and vaulted ceilings. He closed quickly, paying $187,000. And shortly after moving in, he says, his jaw once again hit the floor.

“Within a month or two,” he says, “I found many construction defects in the building.”

The roof, he says, was poorly built, with improper shingle valleys, loose shingles, poor sheathing and nail pops. The dryer vent was not in compliance with building codes. And the chimney cricket, faulty to begin with, had been augmented with caulk instead of being removed and replaced. There were other problems Harper saw, too: drainage issues that could invite termites, a lack of eaves on the taller roofs, improperly installed flashing. And so, within a couple months of his residency at Whitehall, Harper became involved with the community’s board of directors, a homeowners association charged, according to the development’s covenant, with maintaining the buildings exteriors and all common areas of the development, among other duties.

Harper’s troubles were just beginning.

The Whitehall at Richland Creek Board of Directors is a homeowners association, a loosely organized governing body that oversees most public aspects of the development. Fully one in six Americans households fall under some type of association like this, and in the housing boom that began in the late 1990s and lasted until 2008 or so, four out of five homes built were part of communities governed by homeowners associations. To put it in better perspective, in 1962 there were fewer than 500 HOAs in the United States. Today there are more than 300,000.

HOAs serve a purpose, usually outlined in a covenants, conditions and restrictions document known as a CC&R. It’s used to outline the body’s responsibilities, such as maintaining common areas, regulating tax assessments, overseeing expenditures for contractors and repairs and making sure everybody has homeowners insurance. But HOAs can have authority on landscaping, lawn ornamentation, parking, even the colors of the homes in its jurisdiction. They can impose fines, prevent new construction on homes and, in some states, foreclose on residents.

If Whitehall were a publicly held company, each homeowner would be a shareholder and the association its board. A big difference, however, is that membership in a homeowners association is not voluntary — it’s a requirement of anyone living in the association’s community. Whitehall is no exception.

HOAs in North Carolina fall under Chapter 55A of the NC Nonprofit Corporation Act, which protects any board’s actions as long as they are executed in good faith, prudence and reasonability, and also Chapter 47F of the NC Planned Community Act, enacted in 1999, which further enumerates the powers and limitations of HOAs.

Of course, not all HOAs are created equally. News stories abound of HOAs gone rogue, erratically or randomly enforcing regulations, changing terms of the covenants, limiting access to documents like meeting minutes and bank statements, and targeting homeowners who make trouble.

In 2007, the Margots Pond HOA in Wake Forest decreed that, amidst a debilitating drought, homeowners’ lawns must be kept green despite water restrictions. In 2010, the Candlewyck Homes association instructed Connie Harris to plant grass on the front lawn of her home in Charlotte or face fines — though the situation was resolved after an article in the Charlotte Observer. In 2009, the Mountain View subdivision HOA outside of Charlotte began foreclosure proceedings on Susan Smith, a single mother of two, for non-payment of $175 in annual dues.

Generally speaking, HOAs have the law on their side as long as they don’t overstep existing state or federal law. And when a homeowner runs afoul of his HOA, often his only recourse is to sue in civil court.

In January 2001, Bill Harper attended his first board meeting at Whitehall to discuss his roof and dryer vent. Later that month he attended the annual meeting with representatives from Kavanagh and Priestly, then the property management company. By February, he asked for, and received, permission to be included on all paperwork and documents issued to board members, though the board noted he did not have an executive vote in the proceedings.

And here’s where you need to understand a few things about Bill Harper. His professional background includes stints as a mechanical engineer, an applications engineer, an architectural draftsman, a financial planner and a software analyst.

He has done construction, air-conditioning and HVAC design, marketing, research, business consulting and team building, and has served on the boards of three charitable organizations. He plays hand drums, and has given workshops on how the art can enhance business relationships. He has been “auctioned” off at a charity bachelor event. In the 1980s he built a working airplane in his garage and flew it on national television for a spot on “PM Magazine.”

He is also fastidious, disciplined and organized in a way that most humans are unable to be. His condo is as neat as a model home, and a sign by the front door instructs all visitors to remove their shoes. And he is a meticulous filer, with an impressive archive of records that provide a timeline of his tenure at Whitehall at Richland Creek, perhaps his entire life.

Since his first board meeting in January 2001, Harper has collected and saved virtually every relevant document he has gotten his hands on pertaining to his condominium at Whitehall at Richland Creek and created dozens more of his own.

“It’s guys like me who put men on the moon,” he’ll say, without a trace of irony.

In March 2001, Harper addressed the Whitehall board about preventative termite control after researching the super formosan subterranean termite and preparing a three-page position paper on the subject. Three months later he delivered a similar argument about improper dryer ventilation and how it can contribute to house fires.

And in August of that year, his roof began to leak. It wasn’t that big a deal, not yet — just a compromise in the seal made by the chimney cricket. But due to his engineering background, Harper says, he knew it would only be a matter of time before more leaks made themselves known at No. 8 Scotridge Pointe. He offered to fix it himself, with hopes of reimbursement from the association. But that went against the rules of the Whitehall covenant. Harper says the board would not fix his leak until he could prove he had one, and they would not fix the rest of the roof until more leaks were evident. After much campaigning, Harper says, his chimney cricket was repaired after the board authorized Priestly to hire a roofing company.

This was in October 2001, the same month Harper was eventually installed on the board after another member, Hal Zimmerman, retired. Harper served on the newly formed roofing committee; he continued his research on termites and actively campaigned for an elected seat on the board with a platform of responsible stewardship and transparency.

“Being the marketing guy that I am,” he remembers, “I drafted a one-page introductory letter, a half-page bio. I spent the time, the money and mailed a personal letter to all 150 homeowners.”

In January 2002, he was elected president by homeowner vote.

One of his first orders of business was to hire an attorney the lawsuit against Kavanagh Homes for inferior construction, one that was eventually settled in favor of Whitehall to the tune of $70,000 for roof repairs. He also attempted to institute Robert’s Rules of Order at meetings, made contact with other successful HOAs to see if he could improve his group’s efficiency and made a push to remove Priestly as the management company, which was eventually successful.

But not everyone at Whitehall was satisfied with Harper’s leadership. One resident in particular, Bill Law, was continually challenging Harper’s presence, he says.

“At the very first board meeting I went to,” Harper remembers, “I started speaking on my expertise, and Mr. Law said, “Mr. Harper, by what authority are you addressing us?’ I think he was questioning my level of expertise. I’m not on an ego trip. It’s just how I have been trained.”

At another meeting, Harper says he suggested the board meet in private about a separate matter. “Bill Law said, ‘If you do that, Mr. Harper, I will make your life miserable.’” Law was unavailable for comment on this story. But things got really out of hand at a June 24, 2002 meeting about termites.

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Bill Harper keeps meticulous records concerning his resident at Whitehall at Richland Creek, including a 380-page grievance against the board of directors. (photo by Brian Clarey)

“We had a good turnout, and boy was it a lively meeting,” Harper remembers. “It quickly went into the toilet. I got sandbagged by Bill Law, who really turned on the charm. I’ve always considered him the steward of the treasury, [but] he got up to that podium and he lived out his threat.

“It had something to do with finances, how we couldn’t afford it,” he recalls, “I don’t remember exactly. I remember laughing at these 60- to 70-year-old people acting like children in a sandbox.”

Minutes of the meeting don’t note anything out of the ordinary, but Harper recounted the episode in a letter to all current board members and a few select homeowners.

“I was blown away with the belligerent, argumentative, skeptical, untrusting behavior of many, many people,” he wrote. “To not respect the format we were trying to follow, interrupt the speakers with repetitive questions that would have been subsequently answered and to continue interrupting after being asked numerous times to hold questions till Q&A, was TOTALLY WRONG. What ever happened to civil community discussion? Can you imagine the message people were/are conveying to us — your Board?” Within a month two board members, Harper’s confederates, resigned from the board. In August, Harper paid out of pocket to fix his own roof — a sheathing-to-fascia board gap defect that he says violated NC Building Specs and Standards. And in October 2002, he resigned from the board as well.

His resignation letter states, “I have been managing quite a challenging year, personally; from my mother’s failing health, to several trips to Cleveland, to keeping up with the needs of my business, Simplified Systems. Therefore… I must submit my resignation from all committees and as President and Member of the Board of Directors of Whitehall at Richland Creek effective immediately.” He also offered the services of his business, Simplified Systems, for record keeping and management issues at $100 an hour.

And then Bill Harper went to ground. He kept requesting minutes and financials from the HOA, but otherwise he kept pretty much to himself and his condo. He ran his business. He buried his mother. He met a woman.

Then in 2008, Bill Harper once again found himself embroiled in dispute with the Whitehall Board of Directors.

By this time many of the faces on the board had changed.

Some of the older members had moved away; some of them died. Priestley had been dismissed as property manager, only to be rehired again after the replacement company, McKinney, had proven to be “even worse” than its predecessor, Harper says. Kavanagh Homes was on the verge of bankruptcy, for which it filed in 2009, leaving Whitehall at Richland Creek to fend for itself. And the roof shingles, which Harper says were always “inferior,” were beginning to show their age.

“I basically remained on the periphery until any maintenance action directly affected the value of my house,” Harper says. “And when it did, they heard from Mr. Harper.”

He requested copies of minutes from board meetings, which were often denied because, according to a May 6, 2009 e-mail from David Priestly, “The Secretary’s Draft Minutes of a meeting do not legally become the Official Minutes until they are approved by the Board. Because the draft of the minutes may change before they are approved by the Board, we are not going to distribute them to any homeowner until they are approved by the Board.”

And then, after Bernie Madoff became implicated in a gigantic, multi-billion-dollar ponzi scheme in March 2009, Harper decided he wanted a look at the HOA’s financials.

“I asked for a broker’s statement,” he says. “We were supposed to have $585,000 or so in reserve. They denied it. How do I know it’s actually in the account? The harder I pushed for documents the more arrogant they got.”

Right around this time, a period of torrential rain hit the Triad. The water infiltrated Harper’s roof, causing water stains on his kitchen ceiling and a persistent leak in the downstairs bedroom that leached through the ceiling and came down on the carpet like rain.

That’s when he began compiling a grievance report for breach of fiduciary duty against the board, a treatise that would eventually swell to more than 350 pages, including extensive research on roof shingles. He also began shopping for an attorney.

The next few months saw some action in regards to Harper’s leaking roof. Jeff Wills Roofing repaired more than 36 nail pops in November, but another storm resulted in another leak. In December, Wills replaced the roof valley shingles using leftover roofing materials supplied by the board — but to Harper’s dismay, they were a different color than the existing roof shingles, an unacceptable situation for a man like him. Also, it didn’t work.

In February 2010, Harper’s roof began to leak once more. But a call to Wills revealed that the roofing contractor’s services had been terminated by the board because he was without liability insurance. Still the roof continued to leak.

In March, Harper attended the annual homeowners’ meeting at Whitehall at Richland Creek. He says he addressed the historical problems with the roofing in the entire complex going back to the Kavanagh settlement of

2003 and presented his grievance report, now 380 pages and contained in a 3-inch binder, and said to the board, “Fix my damn leaking roof.”

After the meeting, Harper says, he was approached by Bill Law, his old nemesis. But this time he says Law was sympathetic to his cause.

“They just don’t get it,” Law reportedly said of the board of directors.

Eventually Bill Harper’s roof was fixed, first on June 10 of this year with two blue tarps installed on the front valleys, which Harper says effectively stopped the leak — though he wasn’t happy about having a FEMA-style tarp on top of his house. And finally, on July 6, Alpha Omega Roofing Company replaced the entire roof — with matching shingles.

And as far as the Whitehall Board of Directors is concerned, that closes the case.

“He got a new roof,” current board President Roger Kinzer says. “A brand new roof.” He directed all other questions to the board’s attorneys at Forman Rossabi Black.

But for Harper, the saga of his roof is not yet complete. He has a detailed statement of redress for the actions of Whitehall’s board over the last 10 years: a bill for $7,726.74 for legal fees, roofing materials he purchased out of pocket, even the materials used to maintain his records and compile his grievance report. He is concerned about the presence of mold behind his ceiling, and is awaiting an inspection that could further add to the total of his perceived monetary damages.

Harper says he has devoted more than 2,000 hours to this since moving into Whitehall at Richland Creek in 2000. His meticulously kept records include more than 1,100 files on his computer, occupying 361 MB of memory. He has sent and received more than 1,700 e-mails pertaining to his condo, and compiled four 3-inch binders with relevant documents.

He has of yet taken no legal action. As of press time, he still has not received the paperwork from the HOA regarding its finances. And, he says, there are still maintenance issues with many of the roofs in the complex that have not yet been repaired.

And there’s reason to believe that there is more paperwork in Bill Harper’s future. Two weeks ago he put 8 Scotridge Point on the market, asking $214,900. A “For Sale By Owner” sign stands in his front yard, and on the webpage advertising the home, he touts among its amenities a “Brand New 30-Year Certain Teed Architectural Shingle Roof.”

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