We Went for Justice. A Tale of Flowerpots & HOAs & ARBs


The email arrived earlier in the week. A request for a show of force to support a mututal friend, a woman who was far more connected to the email sender than to myself, but a woman I know nonetheless. 

The support was simple: this was a case of Homeowners Associations gone cowboy. It reminded me of that scene in “The Hunt For Red October” when Scott Glenn, as Captain Bart Mancuso boards the Red October and Sean Connery as Soviet Captain Marko Ramius references Mancuso as a “buckaroo” because of his sidearm.  

In fact it was absurd: approval had been granted. But then two days later, but while it was not quite rescinded, it was conditionalized: the resident still had to come before The Board because apparently a member’s aesthetic taste was being threatened. 


At worst: it was a colossal waste of everyone’s time. At best, it was an example of a need for perspective, of a need for self-reflection and of the need for clear standards, not arbitrary “opinions” based on subjective assessments, and maaaaaaybeee a time for an ego check? 

At question was the approval? compliance? allowance? of flower pots, in excess of the allowed three per the Architectural Review Board (ARB) standards. These flower pots are not filled with dead stalks of former botany, or random weeds, or fake plastic plants. They are filled with actual, living, blooming flowers: pistils and stamens… the whole shottin’ match. There are more than three, for sure. I don’t know how many in total, but I’m guessing less than 100. Anyway, the display is beautiful. Everyone agreed. 

But it was still possibly too much. It was a proliferation of petals. A nuisance of nectar. A batallion of blossoms. A flotilla of flowers… It had to be reduced. WE can’t have so many … things. 

“It seems there’s just an … a lot of them…” even though there is no maximum allowed / mandated to have “without board approval.” Y’see, while you can have three flower pots, they must be “earthtone” in color, but who’s to say they’re not too big if they’re larger than a hot tub, because there is no specific language. But to have MORE than three thimble or hot tub -sized pots, you have to sit before relative strangers and wait for approval. In front of other relative strangers. Sometimes as many as 50 relative strangers. 

When the chairman asked for opinions or comments from the Board, no one had anything negative to say; it was as if someone’s personal agenda against these flower pots had deflated or cannibalized itself. One member, spoke up though, and he said something that made the most sense of all: (I’m paraphrasing) that the “defendant’s” (my word) flower pots were an example of a resident doing something positive rather than negative, and that the situation was refreshing. HIGH FIVE RATIONAL BOARD MEMBER! 

In my words, I consider Stamen-gate a nice problem to have. Given all the shit that’s happening in the world, having an abundance of naturally occuring botany is really not such a big problem at all. 

But these guys take their volunteer jobs seriously. I respect that. 

Living where I do, we know what we’re in for. First, it’s 20 minutes to the Pentagon. So there is this tacit understanding of rules and order and decorum and protocols. A lot of the times, they are ensuring that the neighborhood maintains its value and appeal so that everyone can keep their home values secure. I dig that. It’s not easy to own a house, and owning one in this particular ‘hood happens to come with some strings attached. The neighborhood, as a whole, is a collective: we all own about 1,700 acres of forests, housing, ponds, swimming pools, community centers, public library, paved and maintained paths, tot lots, pools, tennis courts and open space. That means that building in here, or adding-on in here, or changing the color of your trim in here requires the oversight and approval of the ARB. If you don’t like it here, then don’t live here.

Most of the time, the function of the ARB makes sense: it costs a bit to live here, so we want to keep the property values in line. Sometimes, the ARB gets a very bad rap. That’s because (for me anyway) it’s a lot of paperwork to submit if you want to put on a deck, or cut down a tree, or place a hot tub on your property. Or a shed. or a swing set. Or a fence. Far and away though, they are reasonable and fair and largely approve most requests. 

It’s the people who want to live here, but who DON’T read the papers in the 3″ binder which comes with their  mortgage documents when they buy their house or rent here that get the sting and get bitter with the ARB. They want the high property values, but … 

  • They want to hang a tire swing in the front yard. Negative ghost rider, the pattern is full. 
  • Or they want to park their motorboat in the driveway. Sorry. 
  • Or an above-ground pool in the yard — WHAT?!  
  • Or the camper in the backyard. No siree. 

It’s those guys who get their nastygrams from the ARB, and I for one am glad the ARB exists for those incidences. 
But when it comes to flowers in pots at the front entrance that are blooming and healthy and being taken care of and are the pride and hobby of a kind and good neighbor… then I get pissed. So about 12 of us showed up on her behalf at that meeting. When the ARB discussed the three-pot maximum, half the room, and not including those of us who were there to REPRESENT, lit up with questions and comments. Nearly everyone agreed that almost everyone in the neighborhood was in violation. I, myself, am currently in violation: I have my two potted Boston ferns out front ALONG with >HORRORS!< two hanging baskets of new guinea impatiens (the baskets are white… shhhh). I mused, to the Board at the meeting, “When I get home, I’m going to move them to the back; but I’ve already exceedeed my limit there — what with my two ferns and two strawberry plants and my planter of peppermint and spearmint. But when you leave, I’m going to bring it all out to the front…” the reasonable member smirked a bit. 

We all know the score. The larger rules exist and for good reason. And then some retiree from the U.S. Patent Office with nothing better to do likely came up with the earth-tone three-pot maximum. The problem is these standards are arbitrary. And if standards are arbitrary then they’re not really standards, are they? They’re more like guidelines. This is where people like the Board can get into the rabbit hole with people like me: I love words. I love parsing them out and getting to the dirt beneath the fingernails. I’ll spend all night debating and destroying a standard… if it’s stupid enough.

That almost happened too. Some dude (likely the Patent Office guy) started to get into it with me, wagging his finger at me, and raising his voice at me because my questions and comments to the Board were exacting and specific — about the distinction between matters regarding permemant structures and matters about impermanent planters — I almost asked (but the little man across the aisle got in my air space), “Why are we debating about planters at the same  meeting regarding roof and siding colors and garage doors? Shouldn’t this be a simpler situation?” But as I said, that little man got in my space and I told him to back off with his hands and to reconsider the way he was talking to me, and then the Chairman slammed down his gavel because the little man was out of order. He violated Robert’s Rules — no cross-talk, the attendees must address the Chairman, not another attendee. That’s to keep things civil. It wasn’t like that scene with Pacino in “And Justice For All” but it was dramatic. Hearing the gavel is like getting pulled over. 

Bad move little man from the Patent Office.  Well played, Mr. Chairman.                 

It felt like, for a bit during the meeting, that my friend was going to get handed a disapproval, but that Board had no idea what it was in for. If we had our lawyer friend there, we would have moved for an appeal, basing it solely on the lack of true standards. Another of her friends cited the lack of transparency in the entire proceeding: the defendant was cited, but doesn’t know who cited her. That person is protected — and our friend has to bust her fanny to keep her plants. Who knows if she was cited out of malice? Bullies and bored people are everywhere. Especially around here, especially over the fence line… Trust me. Our U.S. Constitution affords us the right to face our accusers, but I guess the ARB doesn’t operate under U.S. the Constitution.  

Thanks to the little man and the gavel slamming, the Board was ready to move on and frankly, be rid of us, I’m sure. When we cleared the room, we took a third of the people along.
Our friend won her little case. The pots stay. Yay! There are many morals to this story, the foremost being don’t mess with a person and her 12 friends when you are the agent of a stupid rule. A subsequent moral can be quite simple: it’s flowers. They are beautiful. Back off, peeps. Get a life. Go after the people who have dead trees in their yards: they’re dangerous. Or those who don’t cut their grass, or who still have their Christmas lights up. At least those rules are clear. Don’t go after a nice lady and her beautiful flowers. Sheesh.  

Thank you. 

About Grass Oil by Molly Field

follow me on twitter @mollyfieldtweet. i'm working on a memoir and i've written two books thus unpublished because i'm a scaredy cat. i hail from a Eugene O'Neill play and an Augusten Burroughs novel but i'm a married, sober straight mom. i write about parenting, mindfulness, irony, personal growth and other mysteries vividly with a bit of humor. "Grass Oil" comes from my son's description of dinner i made one night. the content of the blog is random, simple, funny and clever. stop by, it would be nice to get to know you. :)

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