When Julie Gibson moved into Laguna Niguel's exclusive Crest De Ville community, she said her first impression was, "What a wonderful place to raise our family."
In August, the Gibsons, who have two young children, installed a $2,300, redwood, back-yard play set that included swings, ladders, a slide and a "fort" with a multicolored plastic roof.
But a month later, the Gibsons were notified that their play set violates community regulations because it is too tall and too colorful. They were given two choices: shorten the height of the set to 6 feet and paint it beige, or get rid of it.
"It's like you're not even in control of your own back yard," Jim Gibson said, adding that he does not plan to modify or take down the set.
The incident has thrust the Gibsons into the middle of an emotionally charged dispute that has splintered this community perched above the El Niguel Country Club. Last week, about 50 residents squared off against the homeowners association board of directors--and each other--demanding a resolution to what many consider a preposterous infringement of property rights.
"Our houses already look enough alike," Cathy Mizes said. "Do we want our children to look alike, our swing sets to look alike, our cars to look alike?"
Not all residents, however, favored the play centers that are springing up around the neighborhood. "If you let all these things proliferate," cautioned Stan Kautz, "your property values are going to go down."
By the end of the three-hour meeting, two women had wept openly and others were dabbing at tears. Some people simply shook their heads in disgust. The board ended up agreeing to form an ad hoc "swing set committee" to study the problem and consider modifying the CC&Rs; (covenants, conditions and restrictions)--the regulations that govern the community.
But some residents continued to balk. What they want, they say, is for the association to stay out of their back yards.
"Until you start making my mortgage," said Ken Beiter, a father of six whose swing set application was rejected by the committee, "stay off my property."
A representative from Keystone Pacific Property Management, which tends to the community of 249 homes, called allegations that the association is trying to keep play equipment out of back yards "totally false."
"They're blowing it way out of proportion," spokeswoman Sandy Huseby said. "What's most important for one to remember is being reasonable."
Some residents, however, say it is the requirements that are unreasonable.
Kathleen Harvey, who gave her son a wooden swing set with a sandbox, fort and slide as a birthday present last year, said she recently learned that the $1,000 set violated community regulations and fell under the category of an "unsightly item."
The Harveys were told to submit an application to the architectural committee, along with a $200 fee and a form showing whether their neighbors approve or disapprove of the structure. The Harveys do not plan to comply.
"I was upset," Harvey said. "I had an immediate headache."
According to Ken Beiter, the "neighborhood awareness form" is at the heart of the community's problems.
"It somehow suggests to people that they have the right to approve or disapprove of what their neighbor does," he said. "That's really the root of all the problems in our neighborhood. It's pitted neighbor against neighbor. It's gotten to the point of absurdity. It really has."
Beiter's wife, Jacque, said their own playground proposal--a swing set, slide and treehouse-type fort--was denied because it would have been too high. Plans to camouflage the equipment by using a shingled roof and painting the play set the same color as the house did not sway the committee, she said.
"It's a real ugly situation," she said.
Huseby said architectural committee review is required if the structure is higher than the fence top and visible from the street. Committee decisions can be appealed to the board of directors.
But she said neighbor approval is not required for back-yard play structures. The form is "just a way for two people to communicate," Huseby said. "It doesn't necessarily make or break a decision."
Board president Rick Lund said board members are obliged to comply with the rules that govern the community. They only act, he said, when someone complains.
"I'm sure none of this would have happened if people who are neighbors of those with the play sets hadn't written letters and complained," Lund said. "We have a responsibility under the bylaws and CC&Rs; to respond to that."
But even some board members have mixed feelings about the current regulations. "As a homeowner, I think I should be able to have a swing set," Manny Gratz said. "As a board member, I think we should follow the CC&Rs.;"
Whatever the board's ultimate conclusion may be, Ken Beiter said he has already made up his mind about who will govern his back yard.
"I've got to tell you right up front, my attitude is, if I want a swing set, I'll put up a swing set," he said. "My intention would be . . . to build whatever we please on our property."
On Tuesday, in response to similar complaints from other communities, the Laguna Niguel Planning Commission will review city zoning regulations relating to "accessory structures," including play equipment, to determine whether the laws are appropriate.
Community Development Director Robert Lenard, a Crest De Ville resident, said any change in the city's zoning laws would have no effect on the turmoil brewing in his neighborhood since community regulations are more restrictive than zoning laws.
"The Crest De Ville battle is basically a CC&R; battle that's kind of on its own course," he said.