Angry residents dig for truth amid signs of decay in HOA
Kansas City Star
By Judy L. Thomas
03 August 2016

Charles Wolsiffer, who worked on some of the Quivira Falls homes, held on to some of the photos he took in 2009.   Joe Ledford

At first glance, Quivira Falls seems a tranquil hamlet, tucked away in a tree-lined neighborhood in Overland Park.

But hidden beneath the siding of some homes could be rotting wood that has been covered up and allowed to continue crumbling.

The truth may not be known for years because of a jumble of stories told by residents, a whistleblower, a defiant homeowners association — and city officials who don’t want to get in the middle of it.

Ask Tim Ryan, Overland Park codes administrator, whether it’s possible rot in the framework of some homes might have been left unrepaired.

“Could be,” Ryan says. There’s just no easy way to tell.

Indeed, rot might be a perfect metaphor for relations between many homeowners and the Quivira Falls Community Association. Residents say the association could be a case study in everything that could go wrong at an HOA — secrecy, distrust and financial woes leading to endless disputes between a board and its residents.

“I cringe to think of anyone else suffering through what myself and so many others have,” said Nila Ridings, a resident whose experience has made her a go-to person in the national HOA reform movement.

There’s the time one resident returned home to discover the top of her fence whacked off — the homeowners association said the gothic tops weren’t allowed.

The association cleaned out one man’s bank account after he fell behind on his dues.

In 2014, the tennis courts were in such disrepair that one homeowner reported them to the city as abandoned property.

And when homeowners sued to get the association’s financial documents, they won — only to be told none existed.

Not that it’s been a picnic for board members.

They’ve gone through three presidents in a year. The HOA has struggled financially, and tensions with residents once reached such heights that the board hired an off-duty police officer to attend its meetings.

Still, former board president Jody Lamping loves Quivira Falls.

“I’ve lived here 26 years,” Lamping said. “It’s a beautiful place.”

Not for Ridings, who bought a townhome in 2005.

She’s sued and been sued, spent countless hours in court and in depositions, testified at Kansas legislative hearings and run through her savings to repair her home and pay her legal bills. In all, she says she’s spent about $300,000 on a house that’s now appraised at less than half that.

“Our story is one of the worst,” she said, “but these nightmare HOAs exist all across the country.”

Quivira Falls nestles between Johnson County Community College and Interstate 435.

The community, developed in the mid-1970s, includes 513 units — a mix of single-family homes, townhomes and condos.

Karen Lott bought a townhome in Quivira Falls four years ago, looking for an affordable place that would be easy to maintain near her daughter’s school.

Since then, though, she’s had problems with leaks in the walls and ceilings as well as cracks.

And in June she was appalled to learn that, according to a whistleblower who notified the city, wood rot existed in the framework seven years ago before new siding covered it up.

“This just horrifies me,” said Lott, who sells homeowners insurance.

No one seems to agree whether the structural wood rot was ever repaired or whether it was simply sided over — and in that lies a puzzle that continues to frustrate many residents.

In 2008, Quivira Falls was in the midst of a project to repair exterior siding, overseen by its new property management company, the Tiehen Group. Homeowners were responsible for structural problems under the siding, but the HOA has responsibility for the siding.

Charles Wolsiffer was one of those hired to do the siding repairs. He said he quickly realized that the rot he was seeing went deeper than the siding in many houses.

“Man, that place was a nightmare,” he told The Star in a recent interview.

The situation was dangerous, Wolsiffer said, because in many cases, the wood framework that holds a house together was rotted out.

“Your walls sit on those,” said Wolsiffer, a former contractor himself.

Wolsiffer said he worked on 40 to 50 houses at Quivira Falls and found structural problems “in every last one.”

But his supervisor told him only to worry about the siding and to quit talking about the problems underneath, Wolsiffer said in a statement sent to the city.

Workers would come back later and stucco all the houses, his supervisor told him.

Wolsiffer said, however, that adding tons of concrete to the structures when they already were compromised could cause them to topple.

So in the worst cases, Wolsiffer said, he cut out wood rot on the frames himself and fixed them without permission — but it nagged at him.

“It would keep me up at night,” he said.

Eventually, Wolsiffer contacted a lawyer, who told him to document the problems.

“So I started taking pictures and notated whose house I was working on,” he said.

Then he quit.

Wolsiffer took Ridings a packet containing photos and a statement with details about nine of the homes he said had structural damage. All, he said, had been re-sided.

After that, Ridings and another homeowner stood near the Quivira Falls clubhouse during a social event, displaying enlarged copies of Wolsiffer’s photos and a flier complaining about mismanagement.

The Tiehen Group followed up with a letter to residents, saying the claims “contain exaggerations and half-truths.”

It said the staff had “worked very hard to make many noticeable improvements at Quivira Falls.”

The letter said the Quivira Falls board and the Tiehen staff had met numerous times with the city of Overland Park.

“Due to the magnitude of the situation we have only made temporary repairs, with the plan of going back once more funding is available,” the letter said.

Soon after, Ridings received two cease-and-desist letters from Tiehen’s attorney, both ordering her to stop defamatory emails, letters or statements about Tiehen’s management.

Seven years later, questions still gnaw at Wolsiffer, Ridings and others:

What about the dozens of homes Wolsiffer said he worked on that had structural damage? Or for that matter, what about the rest of the homes at Quivira Falls? Is it possible wood rot lurks beneath the siding on some of them as well?

Overland Park’s Ryan said it’s possible some structural wood rot remains at Quivira Falls, but after consulting with legal staff at the time, the city decided not to go back and conduct more thorough inspections.

“The fact that they’d already covered it up, we would have had to make them start tearing all kinds of stuff apart again,” he said.

“There just wasn’t enough evidence on these to tell us that they’ve got a substantial structural problem to start making people tear stuff apart so we can look at it.”

If the city had told someone to tear siding off but then found no problems, he said, the city would then have “a big legal mess.”

Ryan said city workers didn’t believe the homes were in danger “of any kind of catastrophic collapse.”

But Ryan said the city remains open to calls from homeowners.

“While it’s not a perfect way to do it, if somebody thinks they’re having a problem, we can go out there and look,” he said. “If you’ve got structural problems, you’re going to see movement out of that building, and there will be signs of that that we can pick up on.”

The owner of one of the nine homes Wolsiffer identified did call the city to complain. Ryan said the city sent workers, who discovered structural rot when the siding was torn off.

City records show that a permit was issued in 2009 for repairs on that house, and permits were issued in 2011 and 2014 for two others that Wolsiffer had pointed out. No permits have been issued for structural repairs on the six other homes he tagged.

Ryan said it wasn’t unusual for the city to run into feuds at homes associations.

“It is constant where people are trying to pull us into the middle of their issues,” he said. “So we have to be very neutral and kind of walk the line.”

Lamping, the HOA president at the time Wolsiffer complained to the city, said she assumes all structural wood rot was addressed, but she concedes that there was “some cover-up” in the initial phase of repairs.

The board fired Wolsiffer’s supervisor, she said.

“As soon as we found out, that guy was gone, because he told the men to cover it up,” she said. “That was certainly not an intention of the association, nor was it the intention of Tiehen.”

Still, Lamping and current president Bill Reavis said they thought Wolsiffer’s accusations were overblown, and Lamping said Wolsiffer was unreliable.

Charles Wolsiffer took photos to document what he said was structural damage in Quivira Falls homes in 2009.   Courtesy of Charles Wolsiffer

Jim Tiehen, head of the management group, said in an interview that “it was not our intention to cover up any wood rot. I can tell you, on any buildings that we re-sided, they should be fine.”

Tiehen said he couldn’t comment on personnel issues, but that “we certainly did not give them instructions to cover up bad framework. And if we found out that they did do that, then yes, it would be grounds for termination.”

Tiehen, whose company managed the property from August 2008 through 2013, said Quivira Falls was the worst he’d ever encountered.

“I do feel that we did a good job for what we were working with,” he said.

But two years after Wolsiffer blew the whistle, one homeowner claimed that workers had put exterior siding over the rotting framework on his house, his lawyer said.

The homeowner, Phil Lytle, sued Quivira Falls for failing to maintain his property.

In 2012, a jury found that the HOA was in breach of contract and had engaged in a deceptive practice in violation of the Kansas Consumer Protection Act. Lytle was awarded an $18,000 settlement.

But the case didn’t end well for Lytle. The HOA said Lytle failed to use the money to repair the house — Lytle used most of it to pay his attorney — and filed a lien on the property, then tried to foreclose.

The case was dismissed on April 25, Reavis said, after Lytle paid back the money.

Lott, who just learned that her house was one of those tagged by Wolsiffer — and was not one of the three that got permits for structural repairs — said she’d be happy for someone to tear the siding off and take a look.

Until then, she said, she’s not going to walk out on her deck again.

“I don’t know how sturdy it is, anchored into a wall if the integrity of that wall is compromised,” she said. “So, yeah, it’s very disturbing to me.”

Quivira Falls offers a clubhouse, two swimming pools and a tennis and basketball court. The dues, which run about $250 a month, are supposed to cover lawn and shrub care, snow removal, gutter cleaning, trash pickup and exterior maintenance of the homes.

Some homes appear well-kept behind large trees and tidy lawns.

But a drive through the subdivision reveals rickety fences, bare lawns and houses in need of paint and stucco. On one, a deck has fallen off, exposing a sliding door that opens to empty space eight feet off the ground.

Many homeowners say the neighborhood has been neglected for years.

The problems began under a former HOA president who held the office for more than two decades. He handled all the finances and the property management.

Residents became concerned, saying there had been no required outside audit in seven years. With a monthly revenue of more than $100,000, they said, millions of dollars were unaccounted for, and their repeated requests to view the records were ignored.

In 2007, a homeowner filed a lawsuit against Quivira Falls president Ryan Rader and other board members in Johnson County District Court, asking the court to remove Rader from the board and force the HOA to release financial information. Ridings joined the lawsuit the next year.

The homeowners won the case in 2009, but by then Rader had died and Lamping, the new president, told the judge that there were no records to turn over.

“Everybody agrees — I think this is undisputed — that the president there for 20 years was keeping everything in his head or on his personal computer and didn’t share that information,” said Eric Kraft, attorney for the homeowners. “Nobody knew where the money was going.”

Then in 2010, Ridings said, a homeowner walked into the Quivira Falls clubhouse and saw board members shredding documents. Ridings went to the scene but board members wouldn’t show her the papers.

Kraft advised her that filing another lawsuit to force disclosure would be difficult and expensive.

Lamping told The Star that the items being shredded were not crucial financial documents but old timecards they’d found in the upstairs closet of the clubhouse.

She and other board members said Rader never involved them in the HOA’s finances.

“As the community started aging and more maintenance was needed, he wouldn’t raise the dues,” Lamping said. “Things needed attention, and there literally was not any money to take care of this.”

Then, Lamping said, Rader was diagnosed with cancer.

“He was in no shape to make decisions, but he would not let anybody else help him make decisions,” she said.

Lamping and other board members denied, however, that Rader misspent any of the HOA’s money. And when she joined the board, Lamping said, the HOA began putting out monthly newsletters containing financial details.

Reavis said the books “were in shambles” after Rader died but that since then, audits have been conducted annually.

Things needed attention, and there literally was not any money
to take care of this."

—Jody Lamping, former board president

Several residents have wrangled with the HOA, with limited success:

▪ Jim Stewart moved into Quivira Falls in 2010 and soon found it was like pulling teeth to get anything fixed.

He said he repeatedly tried to get his dilapidated fence repaired —and finally called the city of Overland Park to report his own home.

Last year, Stewart became unemployed and fell behind on his homes association dues.

When he got a job, Stewart said, he went to the clubhouse and wrote a check for his current association dues, saying he intended to chip away at the debt.

But soon after, Stewart tried to use his debit card and it was rejected — his balance was zero.

He said the HOA had gotten a judgment against him, then used information from his check to empty his account.

“They don’t care that you’re their neighbor,” he said.

He’s since paid off his dues, sold his house and moved out.

▪  Jean Jones has lived at Quivira Falls for three decades. She’s now on her fourth fence.

One, she said, had gothic tops.

“And they told me I couldn’t do that,” she said. “So they came up here and cut the tops off when I wasn’t home. They just sawed them off.”

Another time, she said, the HOA took her to court because her fence was the wrong height.

“They said I had to have it five feet,” she said. “I came home one day and my fence had been taken down.”

Reavis did not recall those incidents, but said the tops of fences must be dog-eared, so gothic tops would not be allowed.

▪  For Doug Wittebort, the final straw was when a Quivira Falls board member told him he could fly only two flags from the new deck he’d built on his home. One of his three flags — either the Marines, Army or American flag — needed to come down.

“My dad was in the Navy and his life was protected by Marines in Vietnam,” he said. “I put the flags up to honor them.”

Wittebort said he was summoned to a meeting of the Architectural Control Committee.

“They said everybody else has two and you should abide by that,” he said. “They told me it was an eyesore and threatened to fine me.”

Wittebort moved out earlier this year. He’s thrilled with his new place. In Miami County. And “absolutely not” in an HOA.

Reavis didn’t recall any flag rules, but said some years the architectural committees are less lenient than others. “Right now, if it looks good,” he said, “it’s OK with us.”

The Star interviewed several other homeowners who shared stories about problems they’d had, but who asked not to be quoted because they feared retaliation.

Ridings has battled the HOA for years.

In 2008, the wood on her house had become so rotten that the electric meters fell off during a torrential rainstorm, ripping two large holes in the back of the house and flooding her finished basement.

She hired a contractor to repair it and stopped paying her dues, claiming a breach of contract by the homes association for not fixing the problem despite repeated requests. The HOA filed a lien against her for failing to pay. She responded with a countersuit, and the case was settled out of court.

Ridings said she stopped paying her dues again when her fence started falling apart and her driveway sank so much that she could barely get her pickup in the garage. That led to another suit and countersuit, and the case is now headed to a jury trial.

Ridings and others said they would like nothing more than to sell their homes and leave the neighborhood. But she said many homeowners are single women, retired couples or widows who can’t afford to move. Some of the elderly suffer in silence, she said, because they’re embarrassed to tell their children that they were taken advantage of or afraid that if they complain, their children will move them to a nursing home.

“Others are just plain scared to death of what the board will do to them if they take a stand against them,” she said.

Reavis said many of the fines and lawsuits are a result of homeowners not understanding or knowing the rules. But ignorance, he said, is no excuse.

“That’s like saying you ran the red light,” he said, “because you didn’t see the sign.”

The HOA has continued to struggle.

In 2010, the board took out a $1 million loan to pay for some of the ongoing repairs.

Reavis said things are looking up —that loan will be paid off in December, he said, two years ahead of schedule.

But Lamping said there are other financial issues looming — including the completion of a stucco project for about 180 homes that she says could cost upwards of $2 million.

Several homes are in foreclosure, the owners either not paying their dues out of protest or because they can’t afford to. Reavis said the amount of unpaid dues now stands between $180,000 and $220,000.

But even as homes remained in disrepair, Ridings said, the Quivira Falls clubhouse was completely refurbished in recent years with wood flooring, new window treatments and new bathrooms.

“The pools got a new fence, concrete patio furniture and pool covers while the houses were left to rot,” Ridings said.

At one point, homeowners became so fed up that they gathered enough signatures to force a special meeting to try to recall the board. Then they filed a lawsuit when the board twice refused to accept their petitions. Before the case was resolved, elections replaced some of the targeted members.

Such disputes have left Lamping outraged at critics, whom she’s called “pariahs.”

One board meeting got so contentious that a homeowner called police and accused Lamping of threatening to hit her with a gavel.

Lamping acknowledges using the gavel, but only to quiet the woman.

“She said she could do whatever she wanted to do, something to that effect, and that I couldn’t stop her,” Lamping said. “And I said, ‘Just watch me.’ And she took that as a threat.”

It may be no wonder that the HOA has had to beg people to run for the nine-member board, which is currently three members short. Meeting minutes weren’t taken in recent months because there was no secretary.

Ridings herself ran for the board once, but didn’t win. Now she and others call Quivira Falls a war zone.

“It’s wiped out my retirement savings, it’s harmed my health. I have two stress-related diseases,” Ridings said.

“I would never wish this on anyone.”

Questions you should ask before buying in a home association
Your real estate agent should know the answer to these questions or let you know whom to ask.

How much are the monthly maintenance costs?

When are the payments due? Monthly, quarterly, annually?

What exactly are the fees for? Such as: swimming pools, tennis courts, clubhouse, fitness centers, golf courses, street maintenance, lighting, trash and snow removal, etc.

How does the home association handle delinquent dues?

How are board members elected?

Are there term limits on board members?

Can residents get copies of the minutes of board meetings?

How do I get copies of the association’s covenants, conditions and restrictions (CCRs)? Are there restrictions regarding paint colors, playground equipment, flags, parking, landscaping, grass, pets, roofs, solar panels, driveways, fences, patios, clotheslines, satellite dishes?

What kind of architectural guidelines are in place? How are they enforced?

Does the board provide financial information, including the HOA’s budget, to homeowners?

How much does the association have in reserve to fund projects and repairs?

Has the HOA ever had an independent audit or a study done on how much money it needs to hold in reserve?

Are there any special assessments in place now or pending?

Are there any disputes or lawsuits pending that involve the HOA?

What happens if someone sues the HOA? Who pays for legal fees and any settlements?

If the developer is on the HOA board, when and how does the developer plan to shift control of the community to the homeowners?

top  contents  chapter  previous  next