A Letter from WOHA President Peter Lund:
Our Community Needs Protections Against Modern Threats
Like many Whispering Oaks homeowners, I didn’t realize our neighborhood had Community Covenants when I bought my home. Those restrictions, which are attached to every property deed, were put in place by the community’s builders years before WOHA was formed. I’m sure the document was in the stack of closing papers I had initialed, but I never heard the term “deed restrictions” until I got involved with the WOHA board.
I recall asking my real estate agent at the time if Whispering Oaks had an HOA and he said no. Technically he was right. WOHA is actually more of a voluntary Neighborhood Association of select homeowners than a mandatory HOA like across the street within the gated Elm Creek subdivision. Over the years some board members have suggested realigning the organization’s name to avoid the negative connotations some folks associate with the term HOA. I can’t say I would object. But there’s a more important change the organization has been mulling these days.
Like many of you, I’ve come to realize our Community Covenants are a wonderful, unexpected benefit and safeguard. However most subdivisions which are lucky enough to have similar covenants in place eventually update them, but Whispering Oaks hasn’t modified a single word in over 50 years. Meanwhile the world around us has changed dramatically, and as a result, we don’t have important protections like our peer communities.
For example, while we have a rule prohibiting short wave radio towers on rooftops, we don’t have any restrictions whatsoever on the types of home-based businesses which can easily become disruptive. And I’m not just alluding to short term rentals. The latest internet-inspired headache for neighbors on the west side stems from a resident operating a round-the-clock online car rental business from his driveway. Think of it as AirBnb for automobiles in which the hosts often purchase several extra cars to rent out to strangers. There’s currently no covenant prohibiting that kind of intrusion popping up next to your home, and waiting for city ordinances to fill the void can take years.
Whispering Oaks doesn’t have many covenants, but they play an important role in the quality of life we take for granted today, and the stable property values each of us will benefit from when we eventually sell our homes. Like many of us years ago, potential buyers see an appealing community of well-kept homes which somehow sidestepped many of the pitfalls common in lesser subdivisions. But it’s not happenstance; it’s the covenants. Simply put, those rules quietly ensure that everyone here takes a bit more pride in their neighborhood, and safeguard against decline regardless of what happens to the areas which surround Whispering Oaks.
The covenants which our residents commonly rely upon are those which ensure neighborly conduct and minimize conflicts. For example, your neighbor is prohibited from owning chickens which could wake you up on a lazy Sunday morning. Unsightly trailers can’t be parked in driveways for months on end. Garages can’t be converted into habitable rooms with shoddy looking exteriors. Local ordinances allow all of these things in neighborhoods citywide, but Whispering Oaks set the bar higher from its outset.
And yes, some of our covenants do overlap existing local ordinances. For example, there are fencing rules which duplicate our Neighborhood Conservation District design standards city staff are responsible to enforce. However, this redundancy actually has an important silver lining. City code officers can’t always resolve violations in a timely manner and the city attorney is reluctant to pursue such matters in court. Thanks to the covenants, our residents are often empowered to remedy the problem themselves because every property owner has the legal right to insist nearby neighbors adhere to the rules just like everyone else. No one wants to live next to a lingering eyesore or headache and the covenants can provide a viable alternative when default solutions fall short.
Candidly, updating the covenants has been discussed for decades, and the WOHA board thinks some modest amendments are overdue. Clearly we’re not alone. At last month’s Town Hall Meeting regarding short term rental properties, dozens of residents called for the types of restrictions many similar subdivisions have already imposed. As I explained in my August column in The Whispers, lobbyists influencing our state legislators make it difficult for city officials to enact these types of restrictions, but our covenants enable Whispering Oaks to protect its residents without the government’s assistance or interference.
There’s a growing consensus that we’ve hit a tipping point on a few hot-button issues which may become harder to mitigate the longer they fester. Nearly a year ago, WOHA received overwhelmingly positive feedback from its members regarding potential amendments and the board has been working with its attorney sorting through which to pursue. The team has been working methodically because it’s a task that requires thoughtful consideration and ample debate.
It’s safe to say an amendment on short term rentals and similarly intrusive businesses would be well received. But some important housekeeping may be wise as well. One amendment the board is likely to recommend would combine the “units” the builders established when filing properties with the county long ago. These contractual groupings were a simple way to register bundles of similar properties as the community developed from east to west over nearly a decade. Some units are comprised of just a few homes, while others are several dozen.
One unfortunate result is that rules vary slightly among the approximately two dozen units and the groupings inadvertently undermine enforcement. Therefore, if your property sits on the border of a unit, you have limited power mitigating a problematic residence directly next door which just happens to sit in a different unit. An amendment would better unify the community under a more consistent set of rules.
Amending the covenants would be a cumbersome process. Each amendment would require majority approval among property owners within each unit. Any unit which fails to ratify a particular amendment would not receive its benefits like those who did. In the long run, homes in less protected units may be less desirable to future potential buyers. For this reason, WOHA would be vigilant to ensure each residence has the opportunity to fully understand any proposed amendments.
The next step could be for WOHA to take the lead on creating and circulating a legally binding ballot. Its members may authorize the organization to do so in 2023. If so, diligently soliciting votes from all 752 households would require dozens of volunteers, and those willing to help can pre-register by sending a message here.
If a ballot does move forward with a few common sense amendments, Whispering Oaks residents will rest assured the wonderful neighborhood they chose, the quality of life they enjoy, and the home they value will be better protected in a modern world.