Couple in nasty battle with South Natomas homeowners association

07/28/2013 12:00 AM

07/29/2013 8:47 AM

Allen Campbell is a disabled former U.S. Marine pilot who, as a civilian working in Africa, helped rescue nuns and orphans during the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

"He's someone I can call a hero," said Rwandan Ambassador Mathilde Mukantabana, a history professor at Cosumnes River College before her move to Washington, D.C. "He's one of the kindest people I've ever met."

His wife, Cynthia Campbell, is a nurse who has fought abdominal and thyroid cancer while advocating for patient rights.

The couple moved to a new home in South Natomas four years ago. But instead of the peaceful retirement they say they wanted, they became embroiled in a long and nasty battle with the board of the Sonora Springs Homeowners Association, which oversees their 192-home subdivision, and its attorneys.

The Campbells say the dispute began when they raised questions about the association's finances and complained about a lack of handicapped access to the neighborhood swimming pool. In return, they say, they were threatened with fines, disciplined, and denied homeowner privileges.

The dispute has escalated to the point that the Campbells say they have gone to the FBI with allegations about the association's finances, while the association's lawyers have told the Campbells they don't even own their home.

"It's killing me," Allen Campbell, 75, said as he sat in an armchair inhaling oxygen through tubes in his nose. His Marine sword hung above him in his tidy living room adorned with aviation memorabilia, his German shepherd service dog, Caliph, lying by his side.

"People get into a little bit of power, and suddenly the rules are gone," said Cynthia Campbell, 59.

Homeowners association board members and their lawyers would not comment for this story, except for one association official who called the Campbells' story "lies" but said the property manager had instructed board members not to discuss the dispute.

"I don't want to get disciplined, too," said Rahil Sundar, a neighborhood resident and treasurer of the Sonora Springs HOA.

While the battle between the Campbells and Sonora Springs is especially ugly, disputes are common in the world of homeowners associations, said Evan McKenzie, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. McKenzie used to work as a lawyer representing homeowners associations in California and has written two books on HOAs.

Nearly one in four California residents lives in a community governed by a homeowners association, where an elected board of volunteers oversees upkeep of common areas and enforces regulations about home colors, parking and other neighborhood rules.

HOA boards also have the power to impose fines for violations of those rules and levy assessments for community improvements. They generally hire professional property managers to tend to day-to-day operations, such as landscaping.

Despite the prevalence of HOAs, there is no government entity that regularly oversees how they operate, McKenzie said. There are many devoted board members and many conscientious association lawyers, he said. But when things turn sour, associations and their lawyers wield outsized power, while homeowners have little recourse.

Litigation is often the homeowners' only option, but few have the funds to hire lawyers, McKenzie said. He likened it to a criminal justice system with prosecutors but no defense lawyers.

"Because they only represent one side, they become extremely adversarial," McKenzie said of HOA attorneys. "They are pro-association and anti-owner. They want total obedience. The owners are the enemy. They see them as troublemakers."

Association finances challenged

The Sonora Springs subdivision, built in the last decade, occupies a wedge of land just south of Interstate 80 and Truxel Road. Its stucco homes are densely packed on long, straight streets.

The Campbells said their troubles started more than two years ago.

Allen Campbell, who served on the homeowners board at the time, said he became concerned about the association's finances and asked to see its bank accounts but was never given access.

In particular, Campbell said, he learned that the association had taken possession of a home in the subdivision for about $3,500 in unpaid assessments and had owned it for more than a year, but he could get no accounting of any proceeds from the house, such as rent.

Campbell said he resigned in protest from the board in May 2011 because of what he called a lack of accountability.

Cynthia Campbell was elected to the board later that year. She, too, said she tried to see the bank accounts, but received only partly redacted financial records after she was promised the same access that some other board members and property managers already had.

She also began complaining about inadequate handicapped access to the pool.

Allen Campbell said he wanted the pool lift to work so he could exercise his withered limbs. He suffers multiple ailments, including nerve damage from ingesting jet fuel in a crash, he said. A letter from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says he is 100 percent disabled from his military service.

Cynthia Campbell said she resigned from the board in October 2012 after other board members demanded she leave "because of Allen" and his continued complaints.

Earlier this year, the couple said, they met with an FBI agent to present their allegations of financial wrongdoing. "Unfortunately, per policy, we do not confirm or deny investigations," FBI spokeswoman Gina Swankie wrote in an email to The Bee.

They also filed a complaint with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing in March regarding handicapped access to the pool. The department, which can order mitigation or go to court against an HOA, said it could not comment on an active investigation.

Allen Campbell said things never had to get so crazy. The board just had to answer two questions: What's in the bank accounts? And "why the hell don't you fix the swimming pool lift?"

Instead of addressing their concerns, the couple said, the board and lawyers responded with a campaign of intimidation.

The attorneys' actions were spelled out in a series of letters that the Campbells provided to The Bee. Those letters also describe the Campbells' behavior as abusive and harassing.

In September of last year, the association's lawyer at the time, Bradley Epstein with the law firm of Angius & Terry in Roseville, wrote to Cynthia Campbell threatening disciplinary action for "yelling, berating, insulting and interrupting the board members, management, and me."

In other correspondence, lawyers said the Campbells had been following board members and demanded it stop. "That's a total fabrication," Cynthia Campbell said.

In December, Epstein sent a letter asking that the Campbells stop contacting board members except by mail via the association's management company.

He also told them there would be a hearing on Jan. 15 to decide whether to impose "enforcement assessments for the costs that the Association incurs" in its effort to stop the Campbells' harassment and to determine whether to suspend their rights to use recreational facilities and vote.

Barred from the pool

The hearing was a fiasco, according to the Campbells and residents who attended.

Qixuan Chai, a neighbor of the Campbells, said he was neutral in the dispute but went to the disciplinary hearing to get a better understanding of board actions. The hearing was run by a lawyer, he said. Board members would not answer questions or listen to those who wished to speak on the Campbells' behalf.

"It was very disorganized," Chai said. "The way things were conducted was very unorthodox."

Ursula Wawro, a friend of the Campbells, signed an affidavit in which she said board president Cherilyn Wilmore, along with other board members and the board's attorney, "repeatedly interrupted and shouted at the homeowners including the Campbells when they tried to speak."

Two weeks later the Campbells received another letter from Epstein saying the board was suspending their right to attend meetings and to use the recreational facilities – including the pool – for six months. The letter said the board would impose a $1,340 "enforcement assessment" for attorneys' fees.

In March, Epstein wrote to Cynthia Campbell saying she had failed to return a binder containing the HOA's rules, and that the cost to replace it was $1,098.

Cynthia Campbell said she told Epstein the only binder she had was one that came with the house.

The property management company sent a bill for the attorneys' fees, but the Campbells have not paid it. They check every day to see whether the association has put a lien on their house for the unpaid charges.

Another letter arrived in March from a new attorney for the association, Darren Bevan with the Sacramento firm of Baydeline & Jacobsen. He informed them the HOA had determined that they did not actually own their home, and so could not participate in the association.

"Accordingly," Bevan wrote, "the Association will no longer respond to your requests for information or documents. As well, as you are not members of the Association you are not entitled to attend either board or member meetings of the Association, or exercise other entitlements as members."

The Campbells said they assume that Bevan was referring to the fact that they purchased their home with a loan from the California Department of Veterans Affairs.

The loan is structured so that CalVet takes legal title to the property at close of escrow, then sells it to the homeowner via a contract. Once the loan is repaid, a grant deed is issued to transfer title to the homeowner.

CalVet provided a letter on behalf of the Campbells explaining they were the "equitable" owners of the property and enjoyed the rights of home ownership with regard to the HOA.

"I am told I don't own my home because I'm a veteran," Allen Campbell said.

"They've cashed all our checks (for homeowners dues) for four years," Cynthia Campbell added.

They hired a lawyer to contest Bevan's assertions, but the issue remains unresolved.

In addition to legal action, Allen Campbell said the board twice called in security guards or off-duty police to deal with him.

Campbell said he attended a board meeting in November with his walker and service dog. When he exchanged words with board members, he said, a security guard stood behind his chair saying he was there to "keep an eye" on him. In a subsequent police report, Campbell said he stood up and faced the man, who then struck him in the chest with his knuckle, hitting him on his incision from heart bypass surgery.

In March, Campbell said he arrived for a meeting and was told by a uniformed Sacramento police officer that he had to leave or face arrest because he was disruptive. The off-duty officer had been hired by the association to provide security, according to the Campbells and a report the officer filed on the incident.

Photos from the day, taken by Cynthia Campbell, show two officers and squad cars around Allen Campbell on his walker. "It was humiliating," he said.

The board's lawyers either declined or did not respond to interview requests from The Bee. Epstein said in an email he did not have authorization to discuss his prior representation of Sonora Springs. Bevan did not return phone calls and emails or respond to a request left in person with his office assistant.

According to the Campbells, there are five members on the Sonora Springs board: Wilmore, Sundar, Martin Buff, Patrick Hennessey and Darryl Hoytt. None responded to interview requests except Buff, who hung up on The Bee, and Sundar, who spoke only briefly.

Sundar said he had injured his foot and had not been paying attention to board business lately. He urged The Bee to contact property manager Chris Thierry, with Omni Community Management in Orangevale. Thierry did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

"I'm just cautioning you it's all lies," Sundar said. He would not provide specifics.

While he was on the phone, Sundar said he had just received an email from Omni telling board members not to talk to The Bee.

"They want to talk to you guys directly," he said. "Board members are not in a position to talk because they are not in a position to know about all the problems."

Call The Bee's Hudson Sangree, (916) 321-1191.

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