HOA threatens 'jail time' for family over color of backyard play set

Legal letters demand removal of the purple (!) swing set within weeks.

Editor's note, early morning, Aug. 14: We reached Marla Stout late Thursday in advance of her  appearance Friday morning appearance on "Fox & Friends," so this post has been updated throughout. She has mixed feelings about the media attention -- which was instigated by neighbors contacting local reporters, not by the Stouts -- because of her daughters, ages 8 and 5. "They start school on Wednesday, and this is not how we'd planned to spend our last week together. Bee starts kindergarten, and I was already a wreck over that and then this blew." She took them out of town, but "my oldest got very upset today and cried because she thinks all of this is her fault because she wanted a colorful play set. My 5-year-old thinks they can stick it. ... They have been all over the media and it was fun for five minutes, now not so much. Even though we have overwhelming community support, it's hard."

Editor's note, about 4 p.m. PT Aug. 14: This post has been updated with information on the Go Fund Me campaign that friends and neighbors set up for the Stout Family Legal Defense Fund.

The offenders: the Stout family of Lee's Summit, Missouri.

The offense: the color of their 2-year-old play set. It's stained a shade of purple. (Purple! It's practically a neutral! Well, here at Yahoo, anyway.)

The Raintree Lake Property Owners Association first put the Stouts on notice last year that the family's play set did not comport with the Architectural Review Board Guidelines for Architectural Control. Mom Marla Stout tells Yahoo Homes:

"After the set had been in place for 11 months, we got a letter saying that we were being fined $200 for not getting approval to put up a swing set. My husband and another friend who happens to be an HOA president are both engineers. The way they read the bylaws was that if you put a pre-fabricated set you didn't need approval.

"Colors had to be harmonious with community. There are over 2,000 homes in Raintree. Pick a color, any color, it's here. We have swing sets in place with multicolored canopies, huge yellow slides, etc. Ours blends with the trees and is shaded by four large trees. We honestly had no idea we'd done something wrong."

So she and her husband, Jack, appealed the fine -- and the appeals committee that represents the board found in the Stouts' favor.

Marla Stout's T-shirt, via Facebook. Click on the photo to see the letters between the Stouts and the HOA.
Marla Stout's T-shirt, via Facebook. Click on the photo to see the letters between the Stouts and the HOA.

"That should have ended the process," Stout said.

But the Architectural Review Board and the HOA board "continued to push the issue about the color," she said. "We asked for suggestions and were told they couldn't give us those and nothing existed as far as approved or disapproved colors for swing sets. They simply approve or disapprove based on personal preference."

Now the HOA is suing the family, demanding that the play set be removed entirely. A lawyer's letter threatened that the Stouts could be held in civil contempt -- "which would bring with it a daily fine or jail time until the swing set was removed" -- if they ignored "any anticipated court-ordered injunction." (Click here to see the two-page letter, along with a letter the Stouts sent.) The letter concluded:

"If you do not remove the swing set within the next couple of weeks, the Board has requested that I file the lawsuit against you. The ultimate cost to you will be far greater than any principle you are trying to prove."

Stout doesn't think the play set breaks any rules. The Stouts' daughters want a "girly" color for the play set, and their mother thinks that's reasonable, considering that the stain they used is a color found in fall leaves and flowers. (The Architectural Review Board says it derives its authority from county covenants that charge the board with, among other things, maintaining "a harmonious relationship among structures and the natural vegetation and topography.")

The Stouts tried for a while to come up with a kid-friendly color the HOA could live with, but "we were beating our heads against walls. We had invited them to see the set, talk to the girls, whatever it took, and they sat like stone statues." So in September, Marla and Jack sent them the following letter (click here to see the actual letter):

Our children do not want grey, green, white or brown
To change the color would make them frown

Consider yourself lucky, they wanted bubblegum pink
So PLEASE quit asking me to waste my ink

Your [bylaws] aren't specific
If you clarified them it would be terrific

Until that time, we've done nothing wrong
So, please keep your personal opinions at home where they belong

The happiness of our children is all that matters
We could care less if it leaves our reputation with the HOA in tatters

We can play this game till the kids could care less
Just remember, it's the people in charge that made this mess

"That may have been the letter that pissed off the board," she tells Yahoo Homes.

Stout and neighborhood supporters attended the HOA's monthly meeting this past Tuesday night, urging the board to drop the legal action. TV cameras were there too — even capturing Stout's T-shirt that a friend with Hotpress Express whipped up for the occasion, bearing the slogan #purplepower (a hashtag we can't help but love at Yahoo). See the video at the bottom of this post for footage of the meeting.

But the HOA's lawsuit plans remain unaltered.

The board president briefly addressed residents at Tuesday's meeting to say, "Rules have been set forward and we have to abide by them." Board members have otherwise declined to comment because of the pending litigation.

We asked Stout where the objections originated. She told us:

Click the image to see a larger version of the HOA lawyer's letter, as well as the Stouts' letter.
Click the image to see a larger version of the HOA lawyer's letter, as well as the Stouts' letter.

"They claimed that it started with a written complaint from one of our neighbors. We know now that it was reported by our codes enforcer, a guy who is not a resident and is a paid employee of the association. He brought it to the attention of the office manager, another nonresident paid employee, and it spiraled from there. I have neighbors on my block that said she tried to get them to actually file a complaint and they refused because they love the set."

She also gained petition signatures on her behalf from every neighbor with a sightline of the play set.

"The good people in this community are the ones getting the shaft from this," she told the local NBC affiliate, 41 Action News. She and others resent that their association dues are being used this way. Dillen Steeby, her next-door neighbor, told KMBC News: "I'm really perturbed that they would waste money pursuing something like this to attack good people."

The Stouts' own legal fees aren't inconsequential, either. (He's an engineer who travels a lot -- his office is in Chicago -- and she's a stay-at-home mom with an MBA who had been considering substitute teaching; that plan is "on the back burner while I deal with this mess.") Friends and neighbors set up a Go Fund Me page for the Stout Family Legal Defense Fund on Friday.

She remains optimistic that "lemonade is going to come out of this somehow," she tells us. She expects better HOA meeting attendance, a new slate of board candidates, better voter turnout. "People are engaged, enraged and prepared to do what it takes to take back the community that they love."

Here's the full section on play equipment from the Architectural Review Board's guidelines (which, incidentally, also call for a "subdued" color for vinyl siding, explicitly adding that "Glacier White and Snow White are not allowed"):

Children’s play equipment such as sandboxes, temporary swimming pool having a depth less than twenty-four (24) inches, play houses and tents shall not require approval of the ARB provided that such equipment is in good repair (including painting), and every reasonable effort has been made to screen or shield such equipment from view.

Equipment higher than fifty-two (52) inches shall require approval as to design, location, color, material and use. Play houses shall not exceed twenty-four (24) square feet and shall not exceed fifty-two (52) inches in height at roof peak. No shed-type roofs will be approved.

Play houses shall be of wood material. No metal playhouses will be approved.

Swing sets and play equipment will be allowed and must meet the following requirements:

a) Color: must be subdued and within harmony with other colors of the community including slides, swings and canopies.
b) Material: must be timber construction. Other materials will be considered on a case by case basis.
c) Use: play equipment is intended for juvenile play only
d) Restrictions: total elevated platform cannot exceed twenty-four (24) square feet

Tree houses are prohibited.

Permanent basketball goals must be approved by the ARB. Goals must show location on the application when submitted. Temporary goals must be stored out of sight of street view, lake view, amenity view or that of a neighbor, when not upright in proper location.

See the video below for footage from this week's HOA meeting.

The Stouts' court date is next Friday, Aug. 21.

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