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St. James Plantation homeowner says owner’s association unfairly targeting her signs, allows others

Published: Oct. 22, 2021 at 4:19 PM EDT
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St. JAMES, N.C. (WECT) - The First Amendment protects your right to free speech, among other things, and prohibits the government from infringing on that right but a homeowner in St. James is finding out that those protections don’t apply when you agree to live in a subdivision with restrictive covenants.

Elise Bailey has lived in St. James Plantation for years and she recently began putting up small yard flags like many of her neighbors have but Bailey is being told she can’t have her flags anymore or risk fines and liens. She says the property owners association (POA) is targeting her for the flags she chooses to display.

“It’s only been the past year that I have put any flags up other than the American Flag, Red White, and Blue, but I see where, locally, we are becoming more segregated and that has to stop,” she said.

Over the past year Bailey has collected and displayed a number of garden flags, which she says are all within the regulations size requirements but share messages like Black Lives Matter or flags with the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on them.

Similarly, she says that others in her neighborhood fly Blue Lives Matter flags, Back the Blue, Gadsden Flags, Q-anon flags, and more without repercussions.

“I think it’s important because you can drive around and see Don’t Tread on Me in the plantation and I wanted more balance,” she said.

Most recently, she was notified by the POA that her flag had to be removed or she would face fines — that flag read White Supremacy is Terrorism. Another flag that caused issues read Capitol Police Lives Matter.

“A POA telling me that I need to take down Capitol Police Lives Matter while they can still allow Police Lives Matter — that’s problematic for me,” Bailey said.

The POA said her flags were political in nature but she says when it comes to other political causes, they have no problem allowing them. However, according to the St. James rules and policies, signs of all kinds are prohibited.

“Except as required by law, no billboards, posters or signs of any kind (specifically including “for sale” or “for rent” signs or posters) shall be erected or allowed to remain on the exterior of any improvement, or on any lot, except (ï) a name and address sign, or (ii) a temporary sign reflecting construction of a dwelling on such lot by a licensed contractor, the design of which must be approved by the Architectural Control Committee. For the purpose of this section, “signs” shall include signs, flags, pennants, banners, and any other physical medium used to attract attention,” according to the regulations.

However, a quick drive around the neighborhood shows these rules are not strictly enforced as a number of flags can be seen including holiday banners, Blue Lives Matter, an All Lives Matter flag, and other Black Lives Matter flags. But, it’s Bailey who faces fines and even the revocation of the right to use the side gates to the neighborhood.

Despite the apparent restriction to flags and signs in the bylaws, the rules and regulations do give the POA board the ultimate authority.

“Final determination on whether any sign is allowed or prohibited, including but not limited what is and is not a sign, and what constitutes a political sign, will be determined solely by the Board of Directors,” according to the rules provided by St. James POA.

It’s not just St. James Plantation, most, if not all, HOAs have restrictions in place limiting things like signs, banners, and even the colors you can paint your shutters but what about the equal application of the rules?

Bradley Coxe is an attorney in Wilmington and he deals with property disputes and other real estate matters including working with HOAs.

“They do have a fiduciary duty and a good faith duty to apply those laws, regulations, equally against everybody,” Coxe said.

And if they don’t, Coxe says that they open themselves up to civil action from property owners.

“There’s no entity and a lot of people think there is, there’s no entity with the state or the county to go in there and tell the HOA you can’t do that, that has to be a private lawsuit from an individual who owns that or a group of homeowners,” Coxe said.

For now, Bailey has taken down her flags and received a new letter telling her the violations were dismissed. But she says the principle of the entire ordeal still bothers her and that she doesn’t want her neighbors’ flags taken down, only to be allowed the same rights to voice her opinions and ideas.

The St. James POA did respond to WECT for a comment:

“With more than 4,000 homes, 81-holes of championship golf and many other amenities and programs, St. James Plantation’s restrictive covenants support an extraordinary lifestyle for residents and guests.

Most gated communities, including St. James Plantation, have covenants and regulations that address architectural design, signage and more.

We have a fair and balanced approach to notifying residents of violations of the community covenants, providing courtesy notices and ample time to correct, prior to implementing enforcement measures, which are conducted in accordance with NC state laws.

Residents initiate violations on a rolling basis, and they do not all respond to requests for correction in a timely manner; this may provide an appearance of some people following the rules and others not; however, this is simply the rhythm of how things come about.”

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