Home, Sweet Hostage
Eight months later, an anonymous complaint changed things.
In August 2010, the Mortons bought a three-quarter-ton van, which Tim used for work to treat and transport animals. They parked it in the driveway because it was too tall to clear the garage. Morton saw a couple of similar vans in the neighborhood.
“The restrictions did not prohibit a mobile home or a recreational vehicle,” he said.
In September the Mortons received an anonymous letter complaining about the vehicle. Morton called board president Larry Buck, who referred him to board member John Reed, head of a code and restrictions committee. Reed said the van violated a rule that prevents motor homes and campers from being parked in view of the street. Morton met with the committee in November to plead his case. He didn’t believe his van should be considered a motor home or camper. The committee suggested raising his garage ceiling and parking the van inside. Morton objected, citing the expense, and was referred to Buck.
Buck owns Victory Awning Industries Inc. with its large painted message visible from the highway near Randol Mill Road and 820: “To Jesus Christ Be the Glory.” Buck wrote a book in 2003 called “Solomon’s 7” about a transformational encounter he had with God in 2003 — available on his website for $14.95 or five for $64.75. In 2007 he and his wife, Susan, started the nonprofit Ends of the Earth Ministries to provide disaster relief in such faraway places as China, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka.
Buck and Morton played phone tag for weeks, and the van stayed put.
Then late one night, Morton and his wife and children were returning home, tired and ready for bed, when a gate attendant barred their entrance. Their van was no longer welcome in the neighborhood — by orders of Buck.
Morton phoned Buck but got no answer. He called then-board member Robert Flynn, who was unaware that Morton’s van was being denied entrance. Flynn no longer serves on the board. The influence of Buck and a few others was draconian and shortsighted, he said, citing rising legal costs that cut into the association’s budget.
“It’s a little bit of a nightmare living in our neighborhood right now,” Flynn said.
His wife, Sandra, had even stronger words.
“I’d move tomorrow if I had somebody to buy my house, and I think a dozen others would follow me if they had the opportunity,” she said.
Sandra said the homeowners association has spent close to $100,000 in legal fees during the past year or so, leaving little in reserves. She worries about higher dues being implemented.
While the Mortons sat in their van at the gate, Buck called the security guard. Tim overheard the conversation and asked to speak to Buck, but Buck didn’t want to talk to him. A frustrated Becky Morton took the phone from the gate attendant and gave the board president an earful.
“Why are you acting like this? You’re supposed to be such a great Christian, and you’re acting like you have complete authority and control over everybody,” Becky Morton recalled telling him.
Buck told her to hand the phone to her husband.
“The first thing he says is, ‘What kind of man are you that you can’t keep your woman under control?’ ” Tim Morton said.
Buck agreed to meet with Tim — sans Becky — at the nearby Waffle House to discuss the situation. Buck asked him to join hands in prayer. After the “amen,” Buck delivered the verdict: The van had to be hidden from view or be removed from the neighborhood.
Morton pleaded his case to the city, accusing RiverBend of violating fair- housing laws. His wife, he said, suffered from a type of anxiety-based medical problem that required her to have a private getaway space, and she relied on the van for that refuge. In February 2011, the city’s human relations unit found no violation.
RiverBend sued the Mortons in district court, seeking a declaratory judgment on whether the van was in violation. Rather than citing the “motor home/camper” rule, the board said the van violated its “unsightly condition” rule, a description that can be applied to any number of things. The Mortons couldn’t envision how a new van that cost almost $100,000 could be categorized as unsightly.
The board began fining the couple $250 a day, and Buck established “lockouts” at the front gate to deny entrance to the Mortons’ visitors, including relatives.
“I can’t have my mom come over,” Becky Morton said. “My kids’ friends can’t come over. My preacher can’t come over.”
They weren’t the only ones at war. Carlos Aguilar had clashed with the homeowners association in 2003 over architectural designs for his house. He had to modify his design. Last summer he was cited for having dead grass in his yard. Aguilar protested. After all, Texas was in a drought, and Fort Worth had implemented water restrictions. Aguilar was given until March 8 to submit plans for replanting and watering his lawn. He waited until the final day, he said.
But a day earlier, Aguilar said, Buck instructed the gate attendant to enforce a lockout on the Aguilars. Nobody was allowed inside to visit the Aguilars. No friends. No family. Even a nanny who cared for the couple’s young children was locked out, making it difficult for her to take the children to school and back each day while the Aguilars worked.
RiverBend’s covenants don’t appear to give board members the legal right to prevent the Aguilars’ friends and relatives from visiting them, but the lockout persisted until the Aguilars filed a lawsuit in state district court. During a pre-trial mediation, the board agreed to allow the nanny and certain other family members to visit if they were involved in child care. Otherwise, the lockout remained.
When a Fort Worth Weekly reporter tried to visit them, the Aguilars had to ask a neighbor to call the front gate attendant and claim the reporter was visiting them. During our discussion on an outdoor patio, the Aguilars hushed their conversation for a moment — they thought they heard a next-door neighbor trying to get close and eavesdrop. The neighbor was the one who had complained about their lawn last summer, after the Aguilars had complained on him for over-watering during last summer’s water restrictions.
Disputes with the Mortons and the Aguilars both started with complaints from neighbors. Board members get involved when neighbors can’t work out differences on their own.
“You are always getting blamed for something,” said Marta Gore, who served for several years on a homeowners association board at Stonebridge Ranch in McKinney. “For those who think it’s a power trip, it’s more of a hassle. There is no power in it. You’re following rules and guidelines.”
The rules lean in favor of what’s best for everyone, and so individual members who don’t get their way sometimes focus their anger on the board, she said.