Village HOA dispute

Aaron Dixon, who lives in the Providence Landing housing development, recently removed the grass in his yard and replaced it with pavers, rocks and no-water-required vegetation. As a result of this he was sued by his homeowners association and has a judgment against him for nearly $12,000. The HOA is also now threatening to enter his property and remove/replace his landscaping at his expense.

A Vandenberg Village resident is embroiled in a years-long battle with his neighborhood’s homeowners association, an organization the resident said has overstepped its bounds.

Aaron Dixon, who lives in the Providence Landing subdivision, said he thought he was being a responsible conservationist when, in 2014, he decided to dig up his lawn and replace what had been a grassy space with rocks, pavers and drought-resistant plants.

Representatives of Dixon’s homeowners association saw the changes in a different light and the two sides have been engaged in a conflict — complete with a fecal-related allegation — ever since. With the courts now involved, potential costs approaching $12,000, and time running out, Dixon is hoping that other area residents will get behind his cause and compel his neighborhood compliance board to change its position.

“I just want them to come full circle, realize their error and basically try to embrace what I’m doing as opposed to fighting it,” Dixon said recently while standing near the rocks that have caused him so much grief. “In the end, I think this is just a better option.”

Attorney Jim Smith, of the Grokenberger and Smith Law Firm, which is representing the Providence Landing HOA, indicated that Dixon’s preferred outcome is unlikely.

“He needs to do what he was supposed to do in 2014, and that is to bring his yard into compliance,” he said, adding that Dixon has stopped paying his assessment fees to the HOA. “Apparently, he either doesn’t want to, or doesn’t have the resources to properly maintain his property.”

Start of the scuffle

Dixon, who said he has a background in civil engineering, construction and machinery, said he initially came up with the idea to replace his lawn after learning of the severity of the statewide drought in 2014.

He acknowledges that he began the work before contacting the HOA — “I’m hardheaded like that,” he said — but he reasoned that he didn’t anticipate that it would cause any issues.

“A lot of people have removed grass,” he said.

In addition to removing the grass from his front yard, he also replaced the grass in the strip of space between the street and the sidewalk in front of his home. This space is technically a public parkway, but Dixon had agreed to maintain it at his own expense when he signed the development’s Declaration of Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions, also known as CC&Rs, when he purchased the home a little more than a decade ago.

He said he felt like that alteration was what really set off the battle.

Dixon, the home’s original owner, said he was approached by a member of the HOA board while he was installing the rocks and was told that he needed to stop. He said he responded by posting a note on that board member’s home that essentially boiled down to “stay off my property.”

That note, Dixon admits, contained at least one curse word. He said the next morning he found dog feces smeared on his wife’s car.

“I was just like, ‘Really?’” he said, implying that it may have been in response to his note. “From there, it’s just been ongoing and ongoing.”

Smith said he'd never heard about Dixon's allegations involving dog poop. Further, he dismissed Dixon’s notion that the issue is a personal one.

“There’s absolutely no vendetta,” the attorney said. “All we’re trying to do is get his yard into compliance. If he had his yard in compliance, he never would have heard from the board.”

To the courtroom

Dixon received a letter from the HOA, dated Sept. 8, 2014, notifying him that he needed to submit a landscape plan and have that plan approved before he could proceed with any work.

Dixon eventually did submit a plan, but only portions of his plan were approved.

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While he argued that he was being responsible in response to the drought, he was told that there were other drought-tolerant options that would likely be approved, such as mulch or artificial turf.

Dixon said neither of those was appealing to him. Acquiring and installing mulch would be too costly, he said, and artificial turf is simply a no-go.

“Do you want to live an artificial life?” he asked. “Just because it looks green, it’s grass? That’s just not an option for me.”

The HOA ultimately filed a lawsuit in an effort to have a court order Dixon to follow the guidelines of the CC&Rs. Dixon did not dispute the suit — he said he was attempting to avoid the costs associated with hiring a lawyer — so a judgment was rendered in favor of the HOA.

Dixon later declined alternative dispute resolution — again, he said, because it would have been at his cost — so he was given the option to either voluntarily comply or have the HOA contract with a third party to make the changes at his expense. He has until mid-July to either comply or submit a new plan.

Dixon has already been ordered by Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge James Rigali to pay attorney’s fees totaling $11,946, and those costs will rise significantly if the HOA has to contract his new landscaping.

Dixon said he sees himself as a “pioneer of sorts” for drought-tolerant landscaping in the area and is incredulous over what he believes are unjust fines that he has been hit with.

“I just feel like this is not right,” he said. “Right now, as it stands, I basically owe the HOA $12,000 in legal fees. Really? For what? To what end? So they can have grass that’s not going to get watered or maintained that will basically look dead? That’s not sustainable. That’s not the future. That’s just not right.”

Smith countered that Dixon can keep working to develop a plan that is approved.

“In a planned development, you can’t just have neighbors going out and doing whatever they want without association approval or you lose the architectural harmony that is the desirability of a planned development,” he said.

Looking ahead

When the HOA first contacted Dixon about the unapproved work, part of the group’s motivation, it claimed, was that neighbors were unhappy with the changes.

Dixon said that he has only heard positive comments from neighbors about his new landscaping, though he noted that many of them won’t speak publicly out of fear of upsetting the HOA.

Dixon said that he has not been shown any of the alleged complaints from neighbors, but Smith said that they do exist.

“His yard continued to be a mess and noncompliant and the neighbors were complaining that it was adversely impacting them and the desirability of their property,” he said.

Dixon, who lives in his home with his wife and three children, said the financial ramifications of the whole dispute have spiraled beyond reason for him.

“Talk about a hardship,” he said. "There's no way I can just come up with $12,000."

It’s because of those financial judgments that Dixon said he remains hopeful that public support can help persuade the HOA into changing its position.

“The thing that gets me is that it was somebody’s choice to do this,” he said of the legal claims brought against him. “They had a choice whether to file an injunction or say, ‘OK, we overstepped our bounds a little bit, let’s rein it in.’”

Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.