Obama Lawn Sign Dispute Bankrupts Virginia Community

Monday, 11 Feb 2013 11:28 AM

By Michael Mullins

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More than four years after Democratic Sen. Barack Obama defeated Republican Sen. John McCain for president, one small Virginia enclave is still divided over the election and bankrupt.

Maria Farran and her husband Sam, a wine broker and a government lawyer, hung a sign endorsing Obama outside their home in community of Olde Belhaven in Fairfax County.

A neighbor noticed the sign exceeded the community’s height limits by four inches and asked the Farrans to take it down or decrease the sign’s size.

The Farrans refused, and cut the sign in half to make a statement that the restriction was a violation of their First Amendment rights.

The town’s board imposed a $900 fine on the couple after the officials found the sign was in violation of the provision.

The board then proceeded to reject the Farrans’ plans for a roof and deck renovation at a meeting that was unannounced. The couple requested the renovation for aesthetic and architectural reasons.

The Farrans considered the decision to be retribution for their Obama placard, and subsequently filed a lawsuit against the board, claiming the officials lacked the authority to impose the hefty fine and reject their home improvements plans, according to the Washington Post.

"It’s like we weren’t living in America. You are always one board election away from a tyranny. They wield enormous power," Maria Farran told The Post.

However, not everyone agreed with the Farran's position or their assessment of the situation.

"When it comes to the Farrans, it’s their way or the highway," said Archie Umphlett, one of the community’s oldest residents.

As a result of legal fees involved in the dispute, the board increased assessments for all residents of the community from $650 to about $3,500 a year.

Jim LeBlanc, a former board president of the Olde Belhaven home owners association, added elderly residents had a hard time paying the costly assessments.

"Some had their health impacted. There’s a sense of, what is it going to take to resolve this? This was a tragic nightmare," LeBlanc said.

The home owners association said the Farrans declined numerous offers to resolve the situation through settlement discussions, despite the hardships their lawsuit was causing neighbors. Likewise, the Farans claimed that the home owners association rejected their attempts to settle as well.

A Fairfax County court eventually sided with the Farrans in 2010, agreeing that the community board did not have the right to impose such a fine.

In 2011, another judge again sided with the Farrans, finding that the board's rejection of their home improvements were improper, considering the determination was made at a "secret" meeting and followed arbitrary standards, The Post reported.

The home owners association was forced to pay back $100,000 in legal fees from the Farrans as well as the couple’s fees, which totaled $400,000.

Unable to pay back the funds, the home owners association filed for bankruptcy in 2012.

Residents are now paying the water, electricity, and maintenance fees out of pocket, The Post reports.

The Farrans have successfully built their deck and new roof.

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