Thursday, July 10, 2008

Lawyers Ruin Everything

Including Wiffle ball fields:
After three weeks of clearing brush and poison ivy, scrounging up plywood and green paint, digging holes and pouring concrete, Vincent, Justin and about a dozen friends did manage to build it — a tree-shaded Wiffle ball version of Fenway Park complete with a 12-foot-tall green monster in center field, American flag by the left-field foul pole and colorful signs for Taco Bell Frutista Freezes.

But, alas, they had no idea just who would come — youthful Wiffle ball players, yes, but also angry neighbors and their lawyer, the police, the town nuisance officer and tree warden and other officials in all shapes and sizes. It turns out that one kid’s field of dreams is an adult’s dangerous nuisance, liability nightmare, inappropriate usurpation of green space, unpermitted special use or drag on property values, and their Wiffle-ball Fenway has become the talk of Greenwich and a suburban Rorschach test about youthful summers past and present.
I've been a part of things like this (both as a kid and as a hired gun) and I know how it will end: the field will go down because land use laws in places like Greenwich are pretty draconian, and if script holds, the next thing that will happen is (a) sympathetic news coverage; (b) donations or pledges of some sort; leading to (c) a local park building a dedicated Whiffle ball field.

Except it will suck, because anything kids make themselves -- forts, fields, half-pipes, etc. -- are always ten times better than the government-approved, safety-inspected, sanitized replacements. I once built a fort out of jagged plywood with nails underneath it to keep out intruders (my brother and his friends, mostly, but I think I was concerned about Imperial Stormtroopers as well). That obviously didn't last much past the time my dad got home from work. When I relocated Fort Awesome to the neighborhood playground, the surrounding softwood mulch and padded corners made the place far less foreboding than I hoped it would be. So basically, enjoy your Faux Fenway, kids, but don't count on it lasting.

I'm actually glad to see this story, however. Despite everything written above (and everything I believed in when I was a kid), I somehow find myself living in a suburb that is about as close as you can get to Greenwich, Connecticut in the State of Ohio. While it's pretty and the people are generally friendly, it's very restricted and very uptight. I'm not going to say that they would prevent me from having a garage sale, putting up provocative political signs, or letting my lawn grow long in the first instance; I'm just sayin' that you may not hear from me ever again in the event that I did. I can't protest though, because I'm pretty sure I signed away my right to do so as part of the neighborhood association agreement. The things we do for a nice school district.

But I can move, and the more stories like these I read, the less I want my kids to grow up in Stepford, Ohio. The market sucks now, but don't be surprised if, sometime in the next year or two, this blog starts being transmitted to you from a fortified compound in the West Virginia hills.


tadthebad said...

Yep. Heaven forbid we allow kids to do something interesting and constructive with their time. Perhaps after a couple of windows getting egged or something similar, the wisdom of a faux Fenway will dawn on the Greenwich Residential Land Use Police/busybodies.

It was recently reported by a "wash-ashore" in a local Cape Cod blog that New Englanders are the only people who think they can tell others what to do with their land. I used to agree, but based on your testimony, this entitled way of thinking exists throughout the MidWest. Tragic. I weep for our future as my contemporaries attempt to ruin the things that make childhood wonderful.

Jason said...

Greenwich sucks. too much money and too much free time leads to all sorts of backbiting about meaningless things. It's one of the few places that actually lives up (or is it down?) to it's reputation as a snooty, uptight, stuck-up, overly self-consicious, self-important den of multi-millionaires.

Of course, I wouldn't mind having a benefactor (or father-in-law) there to bankroll me.

Scott said...

Shyster's neighborhood's website lead: "Be Inspired. Founded in 1837, the Village of New Albany truly came to life in the last two decades as a result of the passion and ingenuity of individuals who believe it’s not just where we live, but how we live that defines our quality of life." Wow, 170 years before it truly came to life. Kind of a long time to wait for your real estate investment to pay off.

Daniel said...

I'm confused - are the neighbors angry that this was built on their property? Because of course that would be an issue. But the article states that it was built on public property - which is also an issue, but then where do the neighbors get off yelling about "their backyard?"

Stuff like this just bothers me and is one of the reasons I will NEVER buy a house in an association. The sense of entitlement and control...ugh. Craig, let me know if there's room on your fortified compound.

Stick it to the man!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Daniel.

But as a homeowner I sympathize with the residents. It's a hugely unpopular stance but if you bought a house next to QUIET, NEVER-UTILIZED PUBLICLY OWNED PROPERTY and suddenly there were 40 people there on a consistent basis, and you paid upwards of a million bucks for said property, don't you have the right to be mad?


Craig Calcaterra said...

Scott --

There's a long story there. Until the mid to late 1980s, New Albany was nothing more than a sleepy farming villiage. There was a mill, a high school, and a pizza place and that's about it.

Then Les Wexner -- Ohio's richest man and founder of The Limited chain of stores -- had a vision of creating Greenwich or Virginia Horse country or whatever here. He built a gigantic mansion, started forming front companies to buy up real estate, and the project was on.

Since the late 80s, Wexner (really his front company) has built an exclusive country club and scores of Georgian mansions (I don't live in one; I'm in the ghetto). The Indy driver Bobby Rahall lives out here now, as do lots of high ranking executives from Nationwide Insurance, Victoria's Secret, etc.

The whole place is kind of weird, in that despite it basically being a rich person's exurb, they still trade off of that quiet little farming town identity. It's BS of course, and the quiet little farmers who still live here aren't too fond of it. Not too fond of their outrageous property taxes either.

Chris H. said...

This goes on all across the country, from Greenwich to San Diego. There are two separate issues:

(1) General zoning and land-use rules as implemented/enforced by local village/town governments. The original intent of such things -- to keep a gas station from being built in the middle of a residential neighborhood, etc. -- probably made a lot of sense, but depending on where you live, things can get quite out of hand. I live in a moderately-prosperous suburb that borders on a much-less-prosperous one, and the differences are stark. We have a toll road (Interstate) going right through our 'burb, and the AutoNation chain wanted to put a dealership along the toll road. Well, the land in question wasn't zoned for an auto dealership, so the village board really put the screws to AutoNation, demanding money for infrastructure buildouts, money for the school system, etc. They worked up all sorts of restrictions that must've driven AutoNation crazy. Meanwhile, the neighboring 'burb was offering all kinds of incentives for AutoNation: tax relief, none of the restrictions our 'burb wanted, etc. AutoNation really wanted the toll road spot though, but eventually abandoned the project due to a combination of the crazy requirements plus a downtick in the market. (We still have a street -- Nations Drive -- that they financed in part.)

(2) Neighborhood associations, covenants, etc. These are the you-can't-paint-your-house-purple, you-can't-leave-your-garage-door-open rules. For the most part, I hate them, but to defend the anonymous comment above, I do see why some like them. I once lived in a neighborhood that was a modest middle-class variety. Nobody was getting wealthy in this neighborhood; it was mostly working class and enlisted military. The houses were smallish but most residents kept them well-maintained, with neat lawns and tidy landscaping. There was one house, however, that was a disaster. No grass at all, just loose dirt with giant rose bushes that were rarely pruned or shaped in any way. It was hideous and an eyesore, and having to drive by that thing every day made me appreciate why some folks band together and set up rules.

You know, I always thought that suburban life was what I wanted; my wife lived in a more rural place when she was young and she's often mentioned a desire for that kind of home. I shuddered at the idea then, but as I get older I begin to appreciate what it would be like to live somewhere like that, where I could build a freakin' diamond on my land if I wanted to.

Mind you, other folks in the area will probably just think I'm some kind of crackpot, and in a decade or so, a new Boo Radley legend is born.

What was I talking about, again?

RoyceTheBaseballHack said...

Many years ago, during a summer of unemployment, I built my little daughter a tree house from nothing but discarded fence material I collected in my neighborhood. It was awesome - two levels and the highest point was about 15 feet above the alley behind us. The only complaint I ever got was from the Podiatrist down the street, who angrily banged on my door one evening after he and his Camry were pelted with water balloons that had been lobed over the North Fortification by giggling nine year old girls. I regard that as one of the high points in my daughter's youth. Sadly, it was taken out by a tree limb that fell during a storm. Nonetheless, I was concerned when I built it that somebody would gripe about a code or an ordinance of some kind, but that never happened. Not even the Angry Podiatrist leveled demands of its removal (he was appeased by a car wash gift certificate).

Ernesto said...

I'm still fairly new to Columbus, but Wexner certainly seems to run things around here. My wife is the Executive Director of a local non profit and Wexner is her white whale. If she can get him on board, all funding problems will be solved.

Chris H. said...


What you describe goes on elsewhere, too.

My mother lives in western Montana. It's not at all like the cliche, Unabomber-sprouting, compound-living militia image that much of Montana has. It's a pretty terrific place...but some time back it was discovered by celebrities, and now expensive neighborhoods are cropping up, and the natives are not at all pleased.

The trick is to find some place that hasn't been "discovered" yet...realizing that, sooner or later, it will be.

Craig Calcaterra said...

Ernesto -- Wexner really is the Mr. Burns of Columbus. He even kind of looks like him. He's decidedly more friendly, of course, but at some point the kind of power he has renders personality traits somewhat irrelevant.

Wexner does a lot for Columbus, but his power and influence here certainly makes democracy something of a secondary concern. Which is fine in a small town controlled by the mill owner, but is very weird in a metro area of over a million people.

Daniel said...

I understand why people get upset about these kinds of things, I just don't agree with them. I think it's just an excuse for people with a lot of money to throw their weight around because they're the slightest bit annoyed that kids are playing within earshot of their multi-million dollar mansion. It ruins a refreshing story about kids who take the time and effort and hard work to design, organize, and build something on their own. I have zero sympathy for the neighbors.

Sorry, it's been a trying day so far, so I'll get down off my soapbox. For now.

Mr Lomez said...

What the hell is the green monster doing in centerfield?

I might sympathize with these kids if they weren't idiots.

Mark Armour said...

The first chance you get, move. On a list of what is wrong with America, neighborhood associations (other than for actual security issues) would be vying for the title.

Craig Calcaterra said...

The only saving grace is that as one of only two lawyers in the neighborhood, I am always asked for interpretations of rules, even though I'm not active in association managment. I've played it straight with them so far, but I'm pretty sure I could cripple the association from within, at least until I can sell my house.

Justin Zeth said...

Sounds like a great deal. You pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for what is allegedly your own property and your own dwelling... and you're still bound by the will of other people around you. You do what they tell you to do. It flies in the face of everything property ownership has historically meant.

I think it's a symptom of the modern extremely mobile society. People are now obsessed with property values. I type transcripts regularly for cases just like this -- someone sues someone because something Party B, who lives on the same street, did with their property is ugly or otherwise undesirable and thus takes a few thousand bucks off Party A's property value.

Short version: Nobody really intends to stay in a home for decades anymore. People buy a home with an eye toward reselling it a few years down the line. This spawned planned community development megacompanies, which in turn spawned the neighborhood associations to protect themselves from liability... and it goes on.

As for me, I *am* somewhat concerned about what seems to be the swift death of freedom. It's getting hard to find anywhere to live where, if you don't feel like trimming your hedges, then by golly you don't have to trim them.

Daniel said...

Lost in all this rancor over homeowner's associations and annoying and crotchety suburbanites yelling, "Get off my lawn" is the fact that that is a really cool place to play whiffle ball.

I'm teaching my 2-year old to swing and we hit whiffle balls off a tee almost every night. Last night I tried to teach him to throw the ball up and hit it, which was met with some very comedic results. I know baseball is decreasing in popularity with the kids, but there's not much better than smacking around some whiffle balls with your friends or kids.

Greg P said...

I hope nobody else moves to Central Maine. We have 5 acres with only one neighbor within shouting distances - lots of trees and fields. No neigborhood associations in our little town of 4,000 either.

Plus, I am with Mr. Lomez. What idiots put the monster in centerfield? Dumbasses.

Anonymous said...

Some people here need to sit in on a first-year property class in law school.

tadthebad said...

I'm not a lawyer, and I don't play one on TV. So by all means, please educate me, oh wise one.

Anonymous said...

As a former Zoning Officer, I can tell everyone that these are the worst type of issues to deal with.

I once had to issue a "stay" in the useage of a a skate ramp that some kids built in their backyard. Neither neighbor cared, the rear of the house was woods, but there was a person a few doors down that hated kids hanging out.

The kid's family challenged my decision and went to a Zoning Hearing Board; $1,000 nonrefundable. The Board made the home owners obtain extra insurance and made the kids sign waivers to use the ramp - the home owners were fine with this.

It is black and white letter law. Very little discretion.

The kids shouldn't have to tear down the wall - appeal the decision and follow the legal path. The Courts have recently rules that Homeowner Associations can govern themselves and land use. But it is worth a shot to appeal. Then appeal to the town. Then appeal to the building permit department.

The family fought to have the ramp

Anonymous said...

OK, tadthebad, here's the nickel version of property law at issue in this case.

1. You have the right to "quiet enjoyment" of your property.
2. This term means exactly what it sounds like.
3. But in our society, if you buy a house next to a pre-existing park/dump/mall /anything that makes noise, in general, you can't go argue that this thing is too noisy and that you can't quietly enjoy your home. You knew what you were getting into. (there are many exceptions to this rule, to be sure)
4. Therefore, if you buy a house next to municipal-owned, quiet, unused greenspace with foliage designed to prevent flooding, you have a right to expect that it will remain that way - or at least that you will be consulted by the muncipality before it's converted into a different use. You don't get to control what the town does but you generally have a right to participate in the process.

Rob said...

In defense of the wall in center field, remember that Fenway's left-field wall was built because of Lansdowne Street and the businesses on the other side. It looks from the picture that the Greenwich kids built theirs for a similar reason. Either that, or a hitter's background, which would be kind of stupid.

Keep in mind also that it was the reporter who compared it to Fenway, not the kids who built it.

tadthebad said...


Interesting stuff. I can think of two local examples off the top of my head where the pre-existing conditions (a golf course and a contractor yard) relative to a newly purchased and developed lot were challenged. In both cases, a court decided that operations of both had to be revised due to complaints from the new neighbors.

This whole thing strikes me as falling into the "be careful what you wish for" category. We're talking mostly about one season, Summer, during which these kids will be playing and, THE HORROR, making noise. I can appreciate the legal aspect of it all, but at some point shouldn't one of the association's members have mentioned that the ball field would give these kids something constructive to do. Idle hands and all...