Slap happy: Lawsuits bloom in Dogwood Valley
Nestled against the Shenandoah National Park in Greene County, Dogwood Valley is a rustic subdivision of 320 lots carved out of mountainous terrain above the South River. But the bucolic vibe is challenged by some residents who allege that the homeowners association is run by a lawsuit-happy cabal who'll stop at nothing to get what they want– even pushing one citizen's property to the auction block over a $35 debt.
What particularly galls opponents of the Dogwood Valley Citizens Association is that its president– the man who bought a forced-sale lot for a fraction of its worth– chairs the Greene County Planning Commission and is now running for election to the Greene County Board of Supervisors.
He is Gary Lowe, and he paid $1,000 for the 2.5-acre lot then assessed for $5,300.
"They advertised it in the paper," says Lowe. "I had friends up there, and I showed up at the auction. When I went to the auction, I wasn't on the [association] board."
Lowe says that 1998 was the only time the Dogwood Valley Citizens Association auctioned off lots, and he defends the foreclosures of approximately 15 of what he says were over 50 delinquent properties.
"That really got the message out to folks," he says. "Now there are only 10 or 15 delinquencies."
Lowe scored his $1,000 deal when the Dogwood Valley Citizens Association sold William Winkelman's two lots at auction in 1998 because Winkelman owed $35 on each for a special assessment the board of directors had levied the previous year.
The case went to the Supreme Court of Virginia, which ruled in January 2004 that the Dogwood Valley Citizens Association was not a bona fide homeowners association and could not levy special assessments, file liens, or sell such property at auction.
The court voided the sale. But that didn't stop the special assessments– or a spate of lawsuits filed by the association and its board members.
Residents who've challenged the association want to know who finances the organization's legal fees, which don't show up on its annual treasurer's report.
"We know they were litigating left and right against anyone on any pretext," says longtime resident and association critic Doug Dye.
Legal fees don't appear in the annual report because the organization never receives the bills, explains Lowe. "If it did, that would have to be disclosed."
The donors "wish to remain anonymous," Lowe says. "Our attorney said if they request to remain anonymous, it's not illegal."
Lowe says he doesn't understand why anonymous donors rile some property owners so much. "Fortunately, we've had people stepping up to the plate to pay [legal fees] out of their own funds," he says. "They should be thanking them."
"I'd like for them to step forward so I could express my gratitude," says a sarcastic Joe Mitchell Miller, who notes that the association has instigated 35 legal actions against him and his family members, many of which he characterizes as "nuisance suits" that have cost him over $100,000 since he first bought property in the subdivision around 1998.
One Dogwood Valley board member, Matthew P. Brown, sued Miller and his mother for $300,000 for "damages to his fine character," after Margaret Miller wrote a letter to the State Corporation Commission asking for help with an "uncooperative board," according to the American Homeowner Resource Center. That case was non-suited in 2004, only to be re-filed a few months later– for $500,000.
"My honest opinion is that it was filed to intimidate me," says Miller, who says he was sued after writing a letter to Brown asking that a gate be removed that kept Miller from reaching additional Dogwood Valley lots he owns. "Historically, when we get to trial, they non-suit. And they've never won a case that went before a judge," Miller says.
Brown declined to comment for this article.
Most recently, the Dogwood Valley Citizens Association sued Miller for trespassing because, says Miller, he used a deeded right of way from the subdivision to get to the Shenandoah National Park. The association non-suited the case right before it was slated for trial– but not before, Miller says, he spent thousands preparing his defense.
"The sad part for me," he says, "is all I wanted to do is come up here and walk in the park."
"I certainly would not characterize any suit filed by the association as a nuisance suit," contends association attorney George Dygert, who declines to say who pays his invoices. He adds, "I've probably defended more suits against the association than I've filed for them."
Miller has filed lawsuits, too. In September, he filed a $150,000 libel action against Gary Lowe because of a letter Lowe wrote to the Greene County Record accusing him of not paying his lawyer in Maryland. (Before moving to Greene County, Miller was a whistleblower fired by Montgomery County– and the county was ordered to rehire him.)
Lowe says the suit is baseless: "Everything I got was from court records in Maryland."
"That was a case [Miller] won hands down," says his lawyer, David Dickey, who calls Lowe's statements "outrageous" and "actionable."
Meanwhile, Lowe says, the subdivision has 13 miles of gravel roads– some of which are passable only with four-wheel drive– that need to be maintained on a budget of $20,000. One good gully washer, he says, and the gravel is gone.
When the Dogwood Valley Citizens Association made a $300 one-time special assessment, people were "outraged," says Lowe. "They don't want to spend money, but they want interstates."
"They cannot make special assessments," says attorney Rich Maxwell, who represented Winkelman and now Dye. Maxwell says it's not unusual for boards to put liens on properties. "They usually let them sit rather than sell them for $35 assessments. That's ridiculous," he scoffs.
Lowe, however, won't rule out auctioning off more delinquent properties. "We have some candidates," says Lowe, "but we're waiting to see how these court cases shake out."
Dogwood Valley attorney Dygert says that he has filed "curative action" documents in the Greene County courthouse to give the association the right to make special assessments for roads and common areas.
"Dogwood Valley takes the position that recording invalid documents makes them valid," says Dickey.
Recently, three residents– Doug Dye, Jay Hatcher, and Grant Colby– decided they were fed up with the special assessments and liens, and filed suit against the association, claiming the group has no right after the Supreme Court ruling in the Winkelman case.
"They're flouting court orders," says Dye, who bought his lots in 1968. Both he and Colby barely avoided foreclosure at the same time Winkelman lost his lots. Dye is one of several residents who claim that their Dogwood Valley dues mysteriously disappear even when properly addressed to the association's Stanardsville post office box.
"They disenfranchise us on the smallest pretext," says Dye. "They claim they haven't received the [assessment] checks. I've never had a problem with Stanardsville mail."
Joe Mitchell Miller worries that if Lowe is elected, "Will my tax payment get lost like my dues?"
"We're not infallible," says Lowe, who declines to comment specifically on Dye's allegation but says the board tries to fix its mistakes "as quickly as possible."
Dye contends that the association has failed to credit past payments and release liens. The final straw for Dye was trying to get a loan using his equity in his property– into which he says he has put $170,000 in improvements over the past few years– and discovering that the title was clouded because of liens the Dogwood Valley Citizens Association had filed– liens from dues and assessments Dye insists have been paid, some dating back 20 years.
"That's when I decided I've had enough," he says. He filed suit August 11.
After serving on the Dogwood Valley Citizens Association board for seven or eight years, Lowe says it's time for somebody else to take over.
That's the problem, contend Dye, Miller, and Hatcher, who's also suing the association. Because they have liens against their properties, they're ineligible to vote for the board of directors, which holds meetings behind closed doors, Miller claims.
"They keep reelecting themselves," alleges Hatcher.
Dogwood Valley residents aren't the only ones feeling victimized by the legal maneuvering. Lowe finds it "interesting" that lawsuits have been filed in the middle of the supervisors' race. "The folks who know me– this has galvanized them," he says. "They're outraged."
Dogwood Valley Citizens Association attorney Dygert, who stopped taking the Hook's calls during preparation of this article, also has filed suit in his own behalf. In April, he sued Colby for $750,000 over a letter Colby wrote to the Greene County Record claiming that the Winkelman case was just a small part of the Dogwood Valley story and describing his own dealings with the homeowners association. In the suit, Dygert claims "mortification," "humiliation," and "vilification."
Lowe, who lives in Stanardsville, thinks his time on the Dogwood Valley Citizens Association has qualified him for the Board of Supervisors. "Once you've served on a homeowners association board, you can serve on anything," he says. And he still plans to build his retirement home in Dogwood Valley.
Jay Hatcher, who nearly lost his home when the association placed a lien on it because of junk vehicles, is less enchanted with his litigious neighborhood.
"I wish I'd never moved here," he says.
Doug Dye fights back against liens on his property.
PHOTO BY JAKE MALONEY
Joe Mitchell Miller took on Montgomery County, Maryland, and won after he was fired in 1990 for being a whistleblower. Now he says he's been threatened and sued for standing up to the Dogwood Valley Citizens Association in Greene County.
PHOTO BY GEORGE KAMIDE
Greene Board of Supervisors candidate Gary Lowe. Slapped with three lawsuits stemming from his service on a homeowners association, as well as one libel suit, he calls the timing of the suits "interesting."
PHOTO BY GEORGE KAMIDE
Fed up with the special assessments and liens, Jay Hatcher, Doug Dye and Grant Colby have filed suits of their own.
PHOTO BY JAKE MALONEY
Doug Dye believes his Dogwood Valley neighbors are the victims of "a hostile takeover without proffers," and says, "We're in a death struggle here."
PHOTO BY JAKOB MALONE
Association president Lowe says maintaining these roads may require additional assessments.
PHOTO BY JAKOB MALONE
PHOTO BY JAKOB MALONE
Jay and Sarah Hatcher bought a house without running water in Dogwood Valley because it was a place they could afford. That was before the legal bills.
PHOTO BY JAKOB MALONE