Playing by the rules applies to everyone

A Times Editorial
Published April 21, 2006

A family's playground set swung from an extravagant gift to a neighborhood dispute, lengthy court fight and $50,000 albatross.

But there is a happy ending. No, not for the Johnson family in Gulf Harbors Woodlands, owners of the disputed playhouse. The winners are the residents of the Children's Home Society orphanage in Sebring, the beneficiaries of the Johnsons' court-encouraged altruism.

This week, Thomas and Lynn Johnson announced they would dismantle the $5,500 children's swing set and playhouse and donate it to the charity. Good for them. They and their neighborhood could use a dose of charity right about now. Though realistically, there were few alternatives considering the Johnsons' mounting court losses. Each time the courts acted correctly.

The Johnsons contended the play set, a December 2002 gift for their children, Kayla and Alden, shouldn't have been subjected to the Gulf Harbors Woodlands deed restrictions prohibiting outbuildings. Among their unsuccessful arguments: Age discrimination, expired deed restrictions and selective enforcement.

The state Commission on Human Rights dismissed the age discrimination claim, and Circuit Court Judge W. Lowell Bray Jr. didn't buy the other arguments in a nonjury trial last year. He ruled the play set an outbuilding and ordered it down within 90 days. The Johnsons' tried again, unsuccessfully, with the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

The courts ruled appropriately. Deed restrictions or covenants are popular throughout planned communities as a tool to govern 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 the Johnsons' neighborhood, outbuildings are allowed with advance written approval from the association board. The Johnsons said they received verbal approval and also contended the play set should have been categorized as a swing set, which does not violate the restrictions.

Instead, they were ordered to pay the neighborhood's $16,000 legal bill. When added to their own fees, the Johnsons are responsible for nearly $50,000 in attorney and court costs, Lynn Johnson said.

As a part-time real estate agent, she should recognize the value of deed restrictions and the enforcement authority they grant. Clashes between residents and neighborhood associations are common, but greater problems would incur if the rules are not enforced uniformly.

"We were wronged in the whole situation," Lynn Johnson maintained in an interview with Times staff writer Colleen Jenkins. "You can't tell me what I can do with my back yard."

Actually, her association can. Just ask the judge. Or better yet, read the neighborhood's deed restrictions.