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Judge's decision fair on too-tall playhouse

A Times Editorial
Published April 6, 2005

The court case surrounding Kayla and Alden Johnson's playground set doesn't tug at the heartstrings.

There are no extenuating circumstances such as the 2000 case in Tampa Palms in which the homeowners association said a treehouse was too tall and violated the neighborhood rules. It mattered little to the board that the child who played in it had leukemia. Later, the association caved after enduring national media attention.

Nobody acquiescenced in the Pasco case despite two years of legal maneuverings, a countersuit and failed mediation. Instead, the case went to a nonjury trial in March. Circuit Judge W. Lowell Bray Jr. ruled last week that a portion of the children's $5,500 swing set and playhouse, a December 2002 gift from their parents and grandmother, violates the deed restrictions of Gulf Harbors Woodlands and must be removed within 90 days. It is an appropriate decision.

It would be easy to cast the neighbors as uncaring busybodies indifferent to children. Just as easily, parents Thomas and Lynn Johnson could be construed as arrogant rule benders seeking special treatment. Clashes between neighborhood associations and property owners are inevitable, but the association would face greater problems if it did not enforce the rules uniformly.

The Johnsons originally contended just that, saying the association was guilty of age discrimination, but the state Commission of Human Relations dismissed their claim.

It is important to note that a modified play set is allowable. It's the elevated, wooden playhouse that is problematic. The family could have removed the offending structure and met the deed restrictions with other playground equipment for significantly less money than a prolonged court fight.

Instead they challenged the legality of the deed restrictions, saying they expired in 1995. Bray disagreed. Imagine the conflicts in Gulf Harbors Woodlands if the Johnsons had successfully invalidated all of the neighborhood's rules?

Deed restrictions or covenants are popular throughout planned communities as a tool to governing everything from vehicle parking to structural appearances to exterior paint color. The aim is to ensure neighborhoods don't fall into disrepair or lose value. In Gulf Harbors Woodlands, deed restrictions require prior, written board approval of outbuildings. Bray ruled the elevated playhouse is an outbuilding, though the Johnsons contend the entire structure should be considered a swing set, which is permissible.

On the day of the trial, Thomas Johnson lamented there is nowhere in the community for his children to play. A more prudent time to raise that concern would be during the due diligence accompanying home buying.

On Monday, Thomas Johnson told Times staff writer Colleen Jenkins the family will appeal. Lynn Johnson also joined the effort lobbying for a problematic bill in Tallahassee that will change the way homeowner associations operate. That is unfortunate. The Gulf Harbors Woodlands Association isn't being unreasonable.

[Last modified April 6, 2005, 01:07:18]

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