ANNAPOLIS – When a group of homeowners in southern Calvert County opposed a new property tax in their community, they went door-to-door to pass out fliers.
But the Chesapeake Ranch Estates board of directors said they were breaking the community’s rule against solicitation, said Chris Soden, a leader of the anti-tax group. So the group began passing out fliers at the gates to the 10,000-resident community.
When the board sent the resident deputy to arrest the group members for trespassing, they moved to the road outside the private community, said Soden, only to have the police called on them.
“A board of directors is more like a Politburo than a municipal government,” said Evelyn Reich, a condo owner from North Bethesda who, like Soden, came out Tuesday to support a bill dubbed the “Homeowners Bill of Rights.”
“Communication is choked off in these communities,” said Reich, who lives in the Georgetown Village condominium community. “No initiative from homeowners is allowed.”
The bill would prohibit condo and homeowners associations from interfering with homeowners’ rights to peaceably assemble, distribute petitions and speak on relevant matters at board meetings.
While they resemble municipal governments, condominium boards are not required to adhere to the same democratic rules. Some have been accused of taking draconian steps to squelch free speech, such as preventing property owners from convening in common areas like clubhouses and picnic areas.
But it’s precisely because condo associations resemble local governments that the House balked at a similar bill last year. The bill passed the Senate last year, but never got out of the House Economic Matters Committee.
“Instead of working to change the rules within their own organization … they’re petitioning the legislature to change the law,” said Del. Bob Frank, D-Baltimore County, one of last year’s opponents.
But Reich said the current rules stack the deck against homeowners who seek to change their “tyrannical” boards of directors.
“Can you imagine a campaign where you can’t distribute campaign literature?” she asked. “So how do you rally the people when every means to communicate to a large number of people is cut off?”
The bill got a favorable reception Tuesday from the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
“I think you’ll probably have our support,” said Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil and chairman of the committee, which raised no objections to the bill Tuesday.
No date has been set for a Senate committee vote. An identical measure in the House has not yet been scheduled for a committee hearing.
While they support the bill, Soden and his Chesapeake Ranch group didn’t wait for the legislature to act. After the dust-up with their board, they took matters into their own hands.
At the next election, the insurgents ran for office and won all eight open seats on the nine-member board, said Soden, who is now the association president.