After Years of Looking the Other Way, a South Durham HOA Cracks Down on Front-Yard Gardens | Food Feature | Indy Week
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After Years of Looking the Other Way, a South Durham HOA Cracks Down on Front-Yard Gardens 

Meg and Matt Hoffman share tomatoes from their front yard.

Photo by Alex Boerner

Meg and Matt Hoffman share tomatoes from their front yard.

What happens when the board governing a community doesn't represent a majority of the community's wishes?

That's the furor overtaking Woodcroft, a leafy neighborhood in south Durham. The argument is ostensibly about gardens, but ultimately it's more than that: it's a generational divide, a difference in opinions about what home is, and an illustration of south Durham's evolving personality.

When Meg and Matt Hoffman were looking to buy a home in Durham five years ago, Woodcroft seemed perfect. The neighborhood was lined with paved trails, giant pine trees, and reasonably priced homes on cozy cul-de-sacs.

And vegetable gardens.

"At the time, there were raised bed gardens all over Woodcroft," says Meg Hoffman. She and Matt knew they eventually wanted to grow vegetables, and so, she says, "We purposely sought a neighborhood where there were visible gardens."

Technically, the neighborhood's homeowners association didn't allow front-yard gardens, but Woodcroft was a laid-back place, and residents told the Hoffmans that those rules were rarely enforced.

The Hoffmans settled in Woodcroft, and, by 2015—now with a couple of kids in tow—they were cultivating food in their yard, with six-foot-high tomato plants attracting toddlers and their parents from around the neighborhood. Like many Woodcroft lots, the backyard was too shady for gardening, but the front yard worked.

"Our yard was the place to be that summer," Meg says. But it was the last year they gardened. In early 2016, Woodcroft residents received a letter from the board saying that the HOA's guidelines would now be closely followed. Shortly after, the Hoffmans and dozens of other households received cease-and-desist letters stating that the plots were in violation of the HOA's rules and needed to be removed.

The gardens were all duly taken down. But resentment and confusion remain.

At 860 acres and just over 2,000 households (roughly half are single-family homes), Woodcroft is one of Durham's biggest neighborhoods. It was built in 1984 by East West Partners, a Chapel Hill-based developer that has created more than two dozen mixed-use communities around North Carolina.

"It was state of the art at that time in terms of mixed-use or urbanist development," says Roger Perry, East West's president. Woodcroft included a range of homes at various price points, office buildings, and walking trails along main roads and through the woods. "Of course, state of the art wasn't very sophisticated at that time."

Not many people were bragging about downtown Durham in the mid-eighties, so Woodcroft was heralded for its proximity to Research Triangle Park and the under-construction I-40. The HOA was there from the beginning. Like most HOAs, Woodcroft's is a quasi-legal group that has standing in court.

Back then, there were no architectural guidelines dictating the appearance of houses and yards; after a few years, some were developed, but they only filled three pages. These days, they're thirty-three pages long, outlining rules about awnings (always prohibited), alarm systems (allowed), and playground equipment (requires approval).

Meanwhile, the neighborhood's target market has changed. With prices around the mid-$200,000s, Woodcroft's colonials and Cape Cods—which have held up remarkably well over the years—are seen as "starter homes" in the context of Durham's ballooning home prices and tend to attract young families. Rather than being focused east toward RTP, many work in Durham and are eager to be part of the city and its many amenities.

With that has come a more urban and sustainable approach toward their homes. Rather than maintaining manicured lawns, many young families want to use them as gardens, gathering spots, play spaces for their kids. And although they knew from the start that the neighborhood was governed by an HOA, many were surprised when it sprang into action.

Board members have said that the shift occurred because the houses and infrastructure were aging and incurring increasing maintenance issues, potentially affecting property values. In response, "the board transitioned several years ago to using professional property management companies that had strong experience with enforcement," wrote representatives of the board, led by architect Andrew Stillwell, in an email.

Matt Hoffman's response to the garden letter was to run for the board that governs the HOA. At the time, few residents paid attention to its actions or elections, and he won a seat handily. Next, he created a survey to find out exactly how Woodcroft residents felt about gardens.

"I thought it would just be a matter of finding out what the majority of people wanted on any given issue and making rules based on that," says Hoffman, a computer scientist. "But I totally underestimated how closely held beliefs about neighborhood aesthetics are."

In fact, his poll—which went out to the neighborhood email list, plus online forums like Nextdoor and Facebook—showed that of the 40 percent of single-family homeowners in the community who responded, 78 percent supported gardens anywhere in a resident's yard, as long as they met basic, to-be-developed guidelines.

But the part that surprised Hoffman was that the board refused to broadly share the survey with residents. Despite unanimously approving the poll beforehand, the HOA's representatives now say the poll was not distributed "because the board felt it was too informally prepared and potentially had a degree of underlying bias." They have also asserted that it only reached a tiny minority of Woodcroft residents.

In response, Matt's wife, Meg, established the Garden Party, with the aim of overturning the board's conservative majority in the April 2017 election and enacting new rules. "Recent board decisions have brought much stricter rules for yards, front-yard gardens, and visibility of trash and recycle bins. We do not believe this trend reflects the desires of most of the neighborhood and is instead a result of the involvement of a small, but vocal, group of residents," read her group's online platform. "We support enforcing aesthetic guidelines where they are supported by a clear majority of residents."

The party fielded two candidates and ran a spirited campaign in a hotly contested election. In the end, though—after a voting period that was extended to reach a quorum of 30 percent participation, a minimum that had not been required or met in recent memory—both candidates lost.

"Though we had not followed this rule in recent years," the board wrote in an email about the quorum rule, "after consulting with our legal counsel, we decided to more strictly follow this rule going forward to improve the integrity of our election process."

While pro-garden residents seem to be the majority, others genuinely oppose front-yard gardens.

"I don't want to use the word 'low class,' but ... well-maintained is key. I walk a lot all over the neighborhood. It's very rare to see a garden that's well done," says a woman who's lived in the neighborhood since 1988; she didn't want to give her name after hearing about the vitriol the controversy generated online. "Already we're battling resale issues because of the age of the neighborhood—we don't need another reason."

Still, many residents are upset at the lack of any subsequent effort to find a compromise or solicit input.

"I feel like my neighbors daily talk about wanting things to be different than they are," says Austin (who did not give her last name), a thirtysomething resident who attended a September 12 board meeting; she was recently censured for having a Black Lives Matter sign in her yard (noncommercial signs are not allowed). "The real issue is that we would like to see changes that are considered."

The board has recently spoken about creating a community garden in a distant parking lot that could hold up to thirty plots, describing it as a "top priority." It sounds like a useful compromise, but Patrick Kurz, who removed his two-hundred-square-foot garden eighteen months ago in response to the board letter, says it probably won't help him.

"It's over two miles away. I'm not going to drive somewhere to garden," he explains. "We have property here that's cultivatable."

To Kurz, the debate is a microcosm of the contentious political climate around the country. "I want there to be understanding or to work toward that. But instead, we have a big knock-down, drag-out fight with opposing camps, and people got entrenched," he says. "And it's a shame. I thought, man, if we can't do it here—I mean, we know each other here."

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