www.montereycountyweekly.com february 22-28, 2024 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY 17 The pandemic was an unusually stressful time for East Garrison resident Mitsuyo Kohama, a night doctor at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. In the little free time she had at her home, which she and husband Ibrahim Shelton bought in 2017, she found some peace by gardening in flower pots they had put in their front yard. The pots brought life to a landscape in which plants initially put in the ground by a developer were dying or already dead. The couple thought nothing of it—so far as they were concerned, they were beautifying their neighborhood, not detracting from it. Then came a warning letter last spring from a property management company for East Garrison Community Association—the development’s homeowners’ association—stating that there was “an excess amount of potted plants and other garden decor” that required approval from the HOA’s Architectural Review Committee. “NOTHING can be placed, kept stored, or parked on the common area without the prior consent of the Board. Owners may not place rubbish, debris, or other unsightly or unsanitary materials on the common area.” Kohama and Shelton were shocked, and struggled to fathom why they couldn’t have flower pots on property they own—they had been there for years, with no complaints. For Kohama, it felt like the HOA was trying to take away one of the few things she cherished. “I have really high stress and gardening really helps my soul,” she says, adding that she’s still recovering from the height of the Covid-19 pandemic— an acutely trying time for those who worked in hospitals—and that though she’s only in her 40s, the stress of her job already has her thinking of an early retirement. She and Shelton, a professor at CSU Monterey Bay, have four kids, which is one of the reasons they bought a home in East Garrison—it was an affordable option for a young family that needed some room. The couple doesn’t have a problem with living in an HOA-run community. So far as they’re concerned, as long as they’re paying their monthly dues—which have gone up from $125 per month to $150 and now $162 this year—they should be free to live their lives and be left alone if they’re not causing harm to anyone else. “We’re going to do our part, and not deface the outside of the crib, but other than that, don’t bother us man, we shouldn’t have to worry,” Shelton says. “And let my wife do her gardening.” When talking about the drama, she laughs, but it’s an at-her-wits-end kind of laugh and masks how deeply upset the ordeal has made her and Shelton. “Leave my pots alone so I don’t go crazy and can still save people’s lives!” she says pleadingly. Shelton adds, “I don’t want to worry about pots, you know what I mean?” They attended an HOA meeting via Zoom to voice their concerns about the flower pot edict, but Kohama alleges they were muted when they tried to speak. Kohama and Shelton are just two of many homeowners the Weekly spoke to in the course of reporting this story, and every single one of them expressed fear of retaliation from the HOA. Some refused to go on the record due to that fear. Only a fraction of the residents interviewed are named in this report, because there are so many grievances. The overarching story they all tell is that over the course of the last year-plus, leadership changes in the HOA—which has a board of four residents and one seat for a representative from a developer—combined with a new company managing the HOA, The Management Trust, have turned what was once a peaceful, neighborly community into what they view as a de facto authoritarian state with few checks on its power. And while the residents the Weekly spoke to would much prefer to mind their own business and live their lives, fear of the HOA hangs over them like a sword of Damocles. The HOA can levy fines against homeowners for violating rules and regulations—which are extremely vague in many cases, and subject to wide degrees of interpretation. And while the HOA can’t foreclose on a homeowner for not paying fines like it can for unpaid HOA fees, it can sue the homeowner to recover them, or recoup them in escrow when the home is ultimately sold. A homeowner can contest the fines in a hearing before the HOA board and property management company—the same people issuing the fines. It’s a darkly ironic turn for a community named after part of the former Fort Ord, where servicemembers once trained before being deployed overseas, ostensibly for the purpose of combating authoritarian regimes. That fight has now come home. L ike many planned communities, East Garrison was envisioned to be a utopia of sorts, a mostly single-family home development of up to 1,470 units. Approved by the County Board of Supervisors in 2005, the townlet on the northeast of the former Fort Ord was going to be pretty enough for a postcard. In some ways, it’s lived up to that promise: It’s tidy, the homes look nice (if homogeneous) and much of it could pass for a set on The Truman Show. But it’s not yet finished, and some of the amenities that homeowners were promised when they bought the homes—mainly, a town center that would hopefully have at least a cafe and someplace to eat and gather—have yet to materialize. One thing that makes East Garrison unlike many local communities is that it’s mired in nesting dolls of bureaucracy. It has its own community services district, which is managed by the County of Monterey (the district’s board is appointed by the Board of Supervisors), and it has two different homeowners’ associations—a master HOA that encompasses both the single-family homes and the townhomes, and a separate HOA for just the townhomes. The properties are also subject to Mello-Roos taxes, which stem from state legislation from the early 1980s named in part after Henry Mello, who was a longtime state senator for the Central Coast. That legislation was passed as a way to finance the upkeep of new developments in perpetuity, so that the burden of maintaining roads and other infrastructure didn’t fall on a municipality, but on property owners. Even if the taxes and fees are higher than most homes, everyone the Weekly spoke with was more or less prepared For some residents of East Garrison, their dream home has become a nightmare. By David Schmalz The tightly clustered homes at East Garrison look similar, with their colors ranging in different shades of white, beige and gray.