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The St. Petersburg Times

Conformity Over Conservation

By Justin George

March 26, 2004.  

Sol Koppel got up Thursday morning, ate a breakfast of vitamins and oat bran-sprinkled cereal, made photocopies at Publix and researched laws on the Internet. He would soon face the Oakwood Village Homeowners Association, which was threatening to fine him because he xeriscaped his front lawn without permission. He wanted to be ready.

Koppel has a cotton-ball top of curly white hair. But the 69- year-old has an inclination to finger-point when he gets excited, which only accentuates the Robert De Niro inflection his voice can take on. "I don't give up easily," said Koppel, whose plight was featured in the Citrus Times on Thursday.

The board had sent him several notices via registered mail, telling him he had violated the subdivision's deed restrictions. His list of transgressions included ripping out his lawn and replacing it with Florida-friendly plants such as desert Cassias, Dame's Rocket and Mexican petunias. Koppel's deed-restricted neighborhood is like many of the new subdivisions popping up in Citrus County. It sits across from rolling green hills and bright green fairways at Twisted Oaks Golf Course.Koppel, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native and ex-Marine, xeriscaped to free himself from yard maintenance as he cares for his wheelchair- bound wife. He asserts he didn't need their permission. "You know what I can't stand?" he said, contemplating his defense before the hearing. "People who let people push them around.

"He left home in his red Ford Windstar minivan, passing manicured lawns and houses that differed by shade more than color. He also passed other expressions of homeowners' personalities: a bright pink house, a porcelain yard owl and an oversized flagpole.

Koppel entered a Beverly Hills Recreation Association community room and filed into the empty front row for the hearing. The room, lined with white walls and linoleum, soon filled with about 70 people, including many seniors who backed Koppel. A Citrus County sheriff's deputy, in uniform, sat facing the crowd. Sam Lyons, a County Commission candidate strolled in, shook Koppel's hand and offered to sign his petition defending his yard.T he president of the homeowners association banged a gavel. Like a boxing-match bell, it signaled the start of combat.

"This meeting is to discuss violations brought by the architectural review committee," President Thomas D'Onofrio said. "We will not be discussing anything to do about saving water - only violations. If you speak about anything else, you will be out of order. "He read aloud from the neighborhood's deed restriction manual, which residents agreed to when they moved in. No buildings, fences or additions can be built without the permission of the architectural review committee. No major exterior changes either. Anthony D'Adamo, a member of the Oakwood architectural review committee, presented his case against Koppel.

He showed pictures of Koppel's xeriscaped yard and a sign that he had posted. The sign had been given to Koppel by the University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service, a federal, state and county partnership that teaches Floridians how to save energy and conserve water. Officials had certified his yard."I'd like to say that wasn't my sign . . ." Koppel interjected. The president banged his gavel. He told Koppel to allow D'Adamo to finish. "The violation was that the grass was removed from the property without notification of the ARC," he said, adding that Koppel also used foul language when, in one incident, he argued about the dispute with a board member. Finally, D'Adamo said, Koppel circulated a petition. That's considered a "nuisance" under the community's covenants because Koppel solicited in the neighborhood without permission. "Now, we'll hear from Mr. Koppel," the president said. "State your case."

Koppel told the board that he took down the "Certified Florida Yard" sign. He said Oakwood Village's covenants mention nothing about seeking permission to landscape. He said other residents don't have to submit landscaping plans, as he was required to do. He said most of the almost 300-home community agreed with him. "I have seven pages of people who live here who agree with me," Koppel said, raising his petition. He defended his landscape plans, which were admonished for being poorly drawn. "Well, I'm not a professional," Koppel said. "I did the best I can." He said his yard isn't unkempt. He said he did nothing wrong. His voice boomed.

The gavel cracked back. President D'Onofrio read from a section of the covenants that included changing "external appearances." Major changes, he said, require permission. "When you're digging up the whole yard," he said, "you're changing the appearance."

D'Onofrio stressed to the audience that the covenants were made to keep order and protect residents' property values. "The book," as he called the rule manual, must be followed. Koppel argued that he did have some grass on a 12-foot wide strip fronting his yard. Wasn't that enough? Who's to say? he questioned.

A man in the audience argued that the board was engaging in semantics. "Let's be fair," he yelled out. The gavel banged. "We are being fair," D'Onofrio said. Both sides argued more. The crowd grew agitated. D'Onofrio called for order. "If Mr. Koppel can go along with no grass," D'Onofrio said, "then his neighbor can dig up his grass. We're protecting you!"

He said Koppel's biggest problem was that he never consulted the association before xeriscaping. He told the audience that the board doesn't legislate against one tree being added, or a few shrubs planted. Overhauling a yard is a different matter." I'm asking you, Thomas, if I need to go before the board for landscaping?" Koppel asked D'Onofrio. "If it's a major change," D'Onofrio replied. "Major change?" Koppel asked. "What's a major change?" The arguing continued. "You're tearing this community apart," a man in the audience yelled out. The gavel banged.

Finally, vice president Ann Panasik called for a vote to decide whether Koppel was in violation of a deed restriction. "Second," a board member signaled. The president called for discussion. "I think there's been enough discussion," another said. "Can I make a motion? Can I have discussion?" Koppel cried out. His last-ditch effort was presenting the petition he clutched. One board member said he didn't want it. "You don't want it?" Koppel stood up shaking it. "You represent these people!" The president threatened to remove Koppel. "At this time I'll have a vote," the president said. "All those who think he's in violation?" All eight board members raised their hands. Instead of a fine, they ruled that he should work with the association on a new landscape plan over the next two weeks to "dress it up a little bit" with more grass.

 "What am I supposed to do?" Koppel said, confused. He agreed at the hearing to speak with the association over the next few days, but he later said he has no plans to substantially change his yard. The gavel banged. The board had another violation to review: Playground equipment in a family's back yard, without permission.

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