February 10, 2006 | By Tom Moran; The Star Ledger
No bicycles, no signs, no peace... no way!
On the street near Haim Bar-Akiva's home, a sign warns children that riding bicycles is forbidden.
This is Twin Rivers, a sprawling housing development in East Windsor where they have rules for everything.
Bar-Akiva, a retired engineer from Israel, is not the sort of man who likes to be pushed around. So maybe this fight was inevitable.
It began in 1993, when he was ordered to repaint his brown front door. His house was also brown, and the rules state that the house and the door cannot match.
So he repainted his door.
But it didn't sit well with his wife, Margaret. She decided to run for a seat on the Twin Rivers board, in hopes of putting an end to this kind of nonsense.
And that is when things got really strange.
When they put up an election sign in their front yard, they were ordered to take it down. When they organized a meeting at the community center, they were told it was off-limits, then charged excessive fees.
And when they asked to print a piece in the association's newspaper, they were turned down again.
Now the Bar-Akivas were in this fight for good.
"This is America," says Bar-Akiva. "That's bigger than Twin Rivers."
Indeed it is. And that is essentially what a state appeals court found this week, ruling on a lawsuit filed by the Bar-Akivas and others like them.
The court didn't fiddle with the silly rules on bicycles and doors. But it took a keen interest in the phony form of democracy practiced in Twin Rivers.
It found that constitutional rights are not surrendered by those who live in associations like Twin Rivers, no matter what their deeds say. And it ordered a trial court to review the rules on signs, newspapers and use of community rooms with that standard in mind.
"The board has all the power of a government, but none of the accountability," says Margaret Bar-Akiva. "That's what makes these places so intolerable."
The Bar-Akivas have lived in Twin Rivers for 25 years. They raised their children here, listening to them play classical music on the piano and watching them play outside on the grass. They have no plans to leave.
Which is remarkable when you consider the campaign they've fought against the little bureaucrats who run the place.
Take the storm door incident of 1997.
The Bar-Akivas put a decorative grate over the top half of their storm door, and were told that this violated yet another rule. But since others had identical grates, they appealed to a mediation panel.
The panel sided with them. So the board dissolved the panel, and filed a lawsuit against the Bar-Akivas.
They sat in a deposition for seven hours, they say, while high-priced attorneys quizzed them on their education, their careers, and endless trivia that had nothing to do with their storm door.
"This was harassment," Bar-Akiva says. "They spent $100,000 on the lawsuit."
Frank Pohl, the board president, wouldn't confirm that figure. But winning the lawsuit was worth the price, he says. Let these people slide, and their neighbors might be next.
"When does that go too far?" he asks.
For most people, the solution is to never, ever buy a home in a place where people like Pohl can boss you around.
But these associations, many of them made up of attached units, are often the only place to find an affordable home. In New Jersey, more than 1 million people live in them.
So we need people like the Bar-Akivas to push back. Their lawsuit could lead to change that will force Pohl and others like him to fight fair.
Bar-Akiva says he admires America's democratic system. Now, he hopes, the same rules might apply at Twin Rivers.