Puttin' Out the Bone

Signing Away Our Freedom

I've got to move. I don't know where, but I've got to go. And it needs to be soon. Straight up, I don't fit in.

You see, I live in a neighborhood that has a homeowners association. It happens to be in Anderson Township, but there are neighborhoods all around Greater Cincinnati that have legally binding governing structures called homeowners associations. They're not just in the suburbs. A few housing blocks constructed under homeowners associations also exist in the more progressive city of Cincinnati.

Here's my particular problem. I got a newsletter the other day from the management company employed by my neighborhood's homeowners association.

On the front page of The Berkshire Estates Enquirer — clever, aren't we? — was an article saying political signs are not permitted in our yards.

Say the hell what? You mean that "Jean Siebenaler for Hamilton County Commissioner" sign I have up on my property has to come down? Damn straight, says Michelle of our management company. She didn't actually say "damn," but any words that say I can't freely express my political ideas sound profane to me.

OK, hold on. So how could my wife and I be so stupid to spend thousands of dollars for a house in a neighborhood that squelches America's most precious right of free speech? Sure, we were given the thick booklet of deed covenants at the time of the closing. Yes, we pay a stiff yearly fee for such things as common-ground grass cutting, maintenance of the community swimming pool — and the damn management company and its cheeky fake newspaper announcing that during this campaign cycle my neighborhood would have the political look of East Berlin before the wall fell.

But my wife and I thought all those words in the book were about not parking an oversized RV in our driveway from October to May or selling firewood from our front yard. We never thought to read the section on signage, which points out the only kind permitted is a small real estate sign.

Trust me. I would have walked from the deal if I had read that. Or I would have taken the case to the streets of my neighborhood if I had caught it after the purchase. But only this year, after living here for 12 years, did the elected neighbors decide to strictly enforce everything in that little booklet, including the ban on political yard signs.

I have a history with political signage. In the 1980s, we moved to Clermont County's Pierce Township. Soon after, I was named the local coordinator for the Mondale for President campaign. But when I put a Mondale sign in my yard, I quickly received a notice saying I had to go to township hall and post a bond or the sign had to come down.

"Say what?" I nearly screamed in a phone call to the township administrator.

Pay some free-speech ransom? Yes, I was told. Pierce Township, as nearly every jurisdiction in Clermont County at that time, charged a bond before a sign could be put up. In many jurisdictions, only part of the money was refundable after the election.

Although this was less chilling than the total ban on political speech in my current neighborhood, I took the case to federal court. U.S. District Judge Carl Rubin quickly ruled against Pierce Township, saying you cannot block a man from going to his garage and getting a couple of pieces of wood, a hammer and a staple gun and proudly proclaiming support for a candidate. I put up my Mondale sign and Rubin told Pierce Township to pay my legal fees. In a matter of days, Clermont County was free.

So when I called Michelle, I was pumped. Not only did I point out that nothing, including a homeowners association bible, trumps the United States Constitution, I added they would have to come to me with the dang U.S. Army to get my Siebenaler sign out of the soil on which my house is built. Of course, I also told her all about my successful federal suit and said the case was in the law books.

She said she would immediately e-mail my views to the elected members of our homeowners association; but if the sign didn't come down, any unpaid fines levied against me would be attached to the deed of my home as a lien.

Yeah, right, I said. Over my litigious butt, I thought to myself. I hung up. Then just to be sure my legal instincts were right — I'm not trained in the law — I called Tim Burke, my yard-sign lawyer.

"When you sign a purchase agreement for a home governed by a homeowners association, you voluntarily wave certain rights, including the right to have a political yard sign," he says.

"You're kidding," I say.

"No, I'm not," he replies.

He just has to add an additional remark.

"Jene, why are you living in that neighborhood?" he says.

I tell my story as a warning. Trust regular neighborhoods. Simple municipal ordinances and codes are enough protection. If your neighbor stacks junk cars in his driveway, call Vice Mayor Alicia Reece's office. Ask for Tonya or Orin. They'll take care of it. You don't need to go where some people up and down your street can play out their obsessions on a stage called your freedoms.

By the way: The next time I see one of those signs on my street, in which a neighbor is goofing on a spouse about turning 40, I'm calling Michelle and filing a report. Don't even think about expressing joy over the birth of a new baby with one of those wooden stork signs. Not if you don't want me dropping a dime on you to Michelle.

As the song says, "We gotta get out of this place, if it's the last thing we ever do."

PUTTIN' OUT THE BONE appears monthly.

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