Miami Herald Column: “Real Estate Counselor: Dispute Over Landscaping Rocks Makes Headlines”

Siegfried Rivera
September 25, 2023


The firm’s latest Miami Herald “Real Estate Counselor” column was authored by Christyne D. Santisteban and appears in today’s edition of the newspaper. The article, which is titled “Real Estate Counselor: Dispute Over Landscaping Rocks Makes Headlines,” focuses on a recent report by FOX 35 News in Orlando that was yet another example of a minor dispute between a homeowner and their community association making local news headlines to the detriment of the community involved. It reads:

. . . Such stories, which tend to become prominent in internet search results under the community’s name, are usually the result of tips from the owners involved. They get to experience the excitement of venting against their association on their local TV newscast or in their local newspaper, but the end result can be highly detrimental for their own property value as well as those of their fellow owners.

The recent report focuses on Jose and Demeris Heinsen, who own a home in Orlando’s Avalon Park community and are embroiled in a dispute with their association over decorative white rocks they installed as part of their $10,000 landscaping renovation. They received a letter from the association saying they had two weeks to remove the stones, so apparently they then decided to bring public exposure to bear and pitch their story to their favorite local station.

The Heinsens tell the reporter they will be going before the board of directors at its upcoming meeting to discuss the situation.

“I could understand if the rocks were lime green, and we had glow-in-the-dark lights, and it looked obnoxious, like a Halloween decoration,” says Jose. “I could understand that, you know? But come on.”

Indeed, the couple’s landscaping looks perfectly neat and tasteful, but the association is not claiming anything to the contrary. The report explains that the Avalon Park association requires owners to obtain prior approval before making such landscaping changes, and the Heinsens freely admit they flouted that rule.

In the community’s bylaws and restrictions, it also explicitly states “white rock is not permitted,” and the management company notes in a written statement to the station: “Avalon Park was developed with traditional design principles that take into consideration the regional context.”

The association simply informed the Heinsens of the fact that such white rocks are expressly prohibited in the community’s restrictions, and presumably that would have been communicated to them had they submitted their landscaping plan for prior approval as required. The statement also notes that other rock colors are acceptable, and the association could work with the homeowners on their landscaping design. However, the story concludes, the battle over the rocks may end up in court.

The Heinsens will surely plead their case at their community’s next board meeting, and perhaps they believe that the media coverage and possibility of a follow up report on the outcome of the dispute will bring public pressure to bear in their favor. However, assuming the association has reasonably and uniformly applied its prohibition against such white rocks in the past, there is really no reason to believe it will now change course and provide them with an after-the-fact exemption.

My view: Indeed, the statement and information provided by the association and its management company appears to have effectively assuaged the report’s potential impact as yet another story about overzealous rules enforcement. The written rule in the association’s documents expressly prohibiting white rocks is prominently featured in the report, as is the information from the written statement about the reasons behind such rules involving cohesion with the area’s regional aesthetics.

The issuance of the statement and background information by the association and its management company in this case provides a textbook example for other associations on how to handle such media attention. Conducting an interview is also an alternative, but it could easily backfire if the report ends up including a snippet that is unfavorable for the community.

Instead, in cases such as this in which the owner clearly ignored the association’s rules, it is much easier and more effective to have the community’s attorney and/or management quickly and succinctly provide all the pertinent information in writing to the reporter. The journalist will surely include it in their report, which will be much more balanced as a result.

Christyne concludes her article by noting that the end result after the association’s response was a news story that did not paint too bad a picture of the community, but nevertheless it represents yet another media report about potential association overreach that will probably find a home online in perpetuity. She writes that it appears some owners in disputes with their associations will always react by immediately calling the media, regardless of the fact that the end result is almost always a news report that diminishes their community’s image. Her conclusion is that they get to enjoy venting about how bad their association is on their local nightly newscast or in their local newspaper, but the damage they are doing to their own property value as well as those of their neighbors can be long-lasting and severe.

Our firm salutes Christyne for sharing her insights into the takeaways from this dispute and the ensuing news coverage with the readers of the Miami Herald.