Date: October 4, 2007
Byline: Jane McHugh
Flying the flag causes woes for Bowie man
Neil Gamerman ran his American flag up the flagpole to see who'd salute it. Nobody did, namely the Ternberry Homeowners Association, which has told him in no uncertain terms to take it down.
Not the flag, per se. The pole. The association contends it violates restrictive covenants Gamerman agreed to in writing when he moved into the neighborhood years ago.
"Remove the flagpole," he's been warned in a stern letter from a lawyer representing the HOA, "before the association takes affirmative legal action to enforce its rights against you."
Those rights include entering his backyard and physically yanking the pole out of the ground, imposing a lien on his property and, at worst, foreclosure of his home at auction.
But the patriotic, highly principled Gamerman has no intention of decommissioning Old Glory, even if it means going to court and spending money. He said, if necessary, he will fight to keep his flag and his home, a two-story, four-bedroom beauty with neatly trimmed lawns in a leafy upscale community near Pointer Ridge.
"It doesn't matter to me, it doesn't matter how much it may cost me," Gamerman said in an interview on his back deck, the Stars and Stripes waving gamely in a variable breeze, as if backing up his defiance of the HOA. "That flag is not coming down."
Gamerman's story parallels similar news accounts on the Internet of citizens erecting flags in their yards after the Freedom to Display the American Flag Act took effect in July 2006. Sometimes the citizens have won the right to keep the flag, sometimes not.
President Bush explained why he signed the act. According to americanpresidency.org, he said: "As our brave men and women continue to fight to protect our country overseas, Congress has passed an important measure to protect our citizens' right to express their patriotism here at home without burdensome restrictions." He may as well have added "from homeowners associations."
The law came in the wake of nationally traumatic post-9/11 events, which have prompted a veritable outbreak of flag waving down to the neighborhood level, to the annoyance of many HOAs. It prohibits HOAs from doing anything to
"restrict or prevent a member of the association from displaying the flag of the United States on residential property within the association."
The chief sponsor of the flag act in Congress was Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a conservative Republican from Western Maryland's 6th District.
Gamerman, a Prince George's County police detective, says he knows nothing about other homeowners' flag problems. All he wants, he asserts, is to show his love for his country in wartime. "I don't see how an American flag and that pole depreciate from the aesthetic value of the community. Our country's in an international war on terror."
Gamerman, 56, is not a military veteran but he works with police officers who are Army reservists and who have been deployed to southwest Asia multiple times. He put up the 18-foot pole with the 3-foot by 5-foot flag shortly before the Fourth of July. But when the 4th came and went, he decided to keep it as a permanent fixture.
In the weeks that followed, Gamerman said he heard no complaints from the neighbors about the flag. But Sept. 18, he received a letter from a lawyer's office in Annapolis representing the Ternberry HOA. It cited him for failing to obtain written approval from the HOA's Architectural and Environmental Review Committee to raise the flagpole. The letter, however, implies that even if he had asked for approval, it would have been denied. The letter describes the flagpole thusly: "flagpole (the 'Covenant Violation')."
The HOA's lawyer, Athena K. Alexandrides, emphasized that the letter said nothing about Gamerman's flag or flag flying. "It does not in any place refer to a flag," she said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "We referred to a flagpole. And my understanding was at some point, there was a flagpole (in Gamerman's yard) with no flag flying on it."
Gamerman admits he takes the flag down when it's raining. But that is in accordance with the Federal Flag Code, which mandates that the flag not be displayed in bad weather.
A representative of Ternberry HOA's management agency, Professional Community Management Inc., in Millersville, could not be reached at press time.
Frank Rathbun, a spokesman for the Community Associations Institute in Alexandria, Va., said the flag act "does not cover flagpoles." The act "says Americans can display an American flag but it must be in conformance with the rules of the community," he said. "I'm not defending the (Ternberry) association. What I'm saying is that all associations have rules. The flag may be attractive but what if another resident did the same thing, what if that resident wanted to put up his college flag? Then everybody would be allowed to put up flags."
CAI is an interest group that provides information and resources to the nation's 300,000 homeowner and condominium associations.
"There are good reasons for covenants," Rathbun said. "They're designed to protect property values, maintain appearances of communities and perhaps most importantly, to meet the established expectations of the residents of that community. I move into a community and see what it looks like, its curb appeal, and its entire appearance. I buy into that appearance.
"If the board of a community starts making a lot of exceptions to their rules all of a sudden, the character of a neighborhood can change rather quickly. Boards are obligated to enforce the rules consistently and fairly. That's their job," Rathbun said.
Gamerman counters that HOA's "no flagpole" stance is a "ruse."
"A flag has got to be on some kind of support," Gamerman said. "I know there are reasons for covenants and I understand that. But an American flag on a pole certainly can't depreciate from the aesthetic value of a community."
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