by Kelly J. Larson | J401: In-Depth Reporting | May 2012
More than 100 identical mailboxes line the streets of the Sauk Creek Neighborhood in Madison, Wis. Black geese, red foxes, red cardinals or golfers appear on cream boxes that sit atop simple wooden posts. Some look old and dirty while others are new and shiny.
Some stand out, though. Interspersed among the matching mailboxes include black ones, gray ones, white ones and one that has flowers covering it. If someone were to complain about these deviant mailboxes, the neighborhood association could force the owners of the households to either trade them in for a cream-colored one or pay a fine.
“There are some people in the neighborhood who feel very strongly that they all need to match, and that if you replace your mailbox you have to get the geese,” Trish Ballweg, a Sauk Creek resident, said. “It’s like $150 for this mailbox, so there are others of us who feel that they’re really ugly and out of date, and who really cares if your mailbox matches as long as it looks nice?”
Sauk Creek, like many other neighborhoods across the country, has restrictive covenants. These rules, laid out by the developers of the neighborhood by contract, are meant to keep property values high by keeping the streets, yards and houses looking relatively similar and clear of features such as trailers parked in yards or firewood stacked against houses.
Other regulations in an official “declaration of covenants, restrictions and conditions” for Sauk Creek include the following: All single-family houses must have an attached garage with no less than two and no more than four stalls; households can have no more than two domestic animals; and only the mailboxes approved by the developer or the Architectural Control Committee, which is assigned by the developer to help regulate the restrictions, can be used.
In addition, any remodeling to the exterior of houses and any other changes that might alter the neighborhood’s appearance must first be approved by the architectural committee.
While these restrictions exist, Ballweg does not see them being a major issue: “I don’t think the neighborhood is obscenely strict about it. It would take somebody complaining about something for the [neighborhood association] board to do anything about it,” she said.
But complaints about neighbors do occur. Bill Schultz, president of the Sauk Creek Neighborhood Association, gave an example of a new resident who had a trailer parked in the yard. A neighbor called Schultz and complained about it.
“When a new person comes into the neighborhood, in part it’s up to the realtor to make sure they have that covenant,” Schultz said. “In this case the realtor never gave it to him, so we had to go and talk to them. They realized the situation and moved the trailer.”
A problem that Schultz notices is that some residents do not know the covenants even exist.
“The problem we’re having now is that [the covenant] is typically attached to a mortgage that is signed at closing when you buy a house.” he said. “Recently we’re finding out that the realtors, unintentionally or not, are not giving it to new buyers.”
The covenants are legally binding, and homebuyers who purchase a house within the covenant’s boundaries must adhere to them whether they know about the rules or not. If the neighborhood association comes across an issue where a resident has violated the covenant and refuses to make the necessary changes, it can give the resident a fine and take them to court if the fine is not paid voluntarily.
Professor Gretchen Viney at the UW-Madison Law School specializes in real estate law and said these covenants are becoming more and more common, especially in newer developments. People can do nothing about the rules and have to adhere to them, unless they can get 65 percent of the other households to vote to make a change.
“The due process concerns are quite telling,” Viney said. “There are a lot of rules about how government can govern its people. But in these homeowners associations, it’s not a government, it’s a private association. And so the rules that they can enforce can be a little bit frightening, from a freedoms point of view.”
Some people wanting to buy a house find the restrictions are not for them and continue to look elsewhere. Others are not bothered and find the restrictions add to the look and safety of the neighborhood.
Even if Sauk Creek residents disagree with the restrictions, for the most part they have to follow them to avoid conflict with neighbors and a possible fine. But having matching mailboxes seems to be one restriction people have been able to avoid, perhaps because the older, dirtier ones can damage Sauk Creek’s image.
“What happens is because they’re so expensive, people leave them up even though they need to be replaced – they start to look really awful,” Ballweg said. “What’s worse: if they put up a plain black one or leave the nasty one?”
The architectural committee sent a letter to each resident three years ago notifying them that the board was considering filing a lawsuit to force people to conform to the mailboxes. Schultz said it did not go over well, and it has not been much of an issue since.
“I think the board felt like there were bigger fish to fry,” he said.
Schultz is among those with a deviant mailbox. He bought one painted with flowers as a gift for his wife on Mother’s Day, not knowing the covenant required matching geese or birds.
“Would I ever change my mailbox? I’ve been thinking about it since I’m president of the neighborhood association,” Schultz said. “[But] my wife really likes that mailbox.”
The Sauk Creek Neighborhood Association said it wants to let residents know where they can go to get one of the mailboxes outlined in the covenant, as well as offer cleaning tips. The cream-colored ones are, after all, legally binding.