Residents of Rock Spring, Ga., neighborhood take growing dispute to court

Residents of Rock Spring, Ga., neighborhood take growing dispute to court

December 4th, 2017 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Alexandria Berry talks outside her home in the Fieldstone Farms neighborhood on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017, in Rock Spring, Ga. The Berrys have been sued by the neighborhood's homeowners association for alleged violations that include the color of their house, a missing skirt on their back porch and parking vehicles on the lawn.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Gallery: Neighbors at odds: Residents of one local neighborhood taking ongoing dispute to court

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ROCK SPRING, Ga. — Like many good neighborhood quarrels, the Fieldstone Farms Owners Association vs. Alexandria and Arthur Berry began with a dispute about paint. From there, the feud evolved. Someone drew a rifle; someone else drew a lawsuit.

"No resident of Fieldstone Farms should have to live in fear of what the Berry family will do next," Darren McBride, an attorney representing the association, wrote in a civil complaint last month.

"It's ludicrous," Alexandria Berry told the Times Free Press last week. "That's ludicrous. Who is afraid of me? That comment is ludicrous. Why would they be afraid of me? I'm barely 5 feet tall."

The Berrys moved here from Watkinsville, Ga., in April 2012 to be closer to family. And for the first couple of years, Alexandria Berry said, the living situation seemed fine.

Well, there was one small problem. The dog. A hound dog, she said. It ran loose, all over the neighborhood, she said. She called animal control, and an officer picked it up. The dog's owners retrieved it. And then it was loose again, she said. And she said she tried to grab the dog, and the dog bit her. She called animal control again. Someone then wrote something mean about her on Facebook.

But other than that, life here was fine.

Then, in 2014, the first real fight broke out. Her husband painted the brick front of the house white. He used limewash, a paint from crushed and burnt limestone. When finished, it looks chalky. The Berrys liked it. The neighborhood homeowners association did not.

Association board members informed the Berrys they had disobeyed the neighborhood's covenants by painting the brick. But the two sides compromised. The Berrys would paint over the brick again, this time with an association-approved color.

Alexandria Berry said they settled on Alabaster by Sherwin-Williams, a light yellow. McBride, however, said his clients actually agreed on a different color, one he could not recall during an interview last week. At any rate, McBride said, the house sure wasn't supposed to be Alabaster.

That was strike one.

THE WAR OF THE ROSES

Two years later, in spring 2016, Alexandria Berry said she noticed a surprising amount of thorns on her silver shadow roses next to the house. She researched the problem, determined a culprit: rose rosette, a disease caused by mites smaller than a speck of dust. It can harden the leaves, cause extra thorns, and kill the flowers.

She believed the disease would spread to her David Austin and heirloom roses. She checked a neighbor's yard, she said, and found signs of the same disease. Wind might scatter the mites throughout the neighborhood. Leaf blowers and lawn mowers and Weed Eaters would only exacerbate the problem.

To warn the neighborhood, she planted posters on her front lawn. "TOXIC," one read. "CAUTION ... VIRUS ... WARNING," read another, with a hand-drawn hazard logo in red. She wrote letters to the neighbors, too, hoping to keep Fieldstone Farms beautiful.

At least one neighbor didn't see it that way.

"Mrs. Berry is VERY angry," the woman wrote to the association in June 2016, according to a letter Alexandria Berry gave the Times Free Press.

The woman added that Alexandria Berry told her son-in-law she would call the cops on him if he stepped on her yard while trimming weeds. The woman said Alexandria Berry's teenage son then stood watch, making sure the man didn't cross into their property.

"I'm suing for harassment," the woman wrote, "and taking out a restraining order."

No such order exists in the Walker County courthouse. But soon after, Arthur Berry wrote a letter to the woman, in defense of his wife. He said Alexandria Berry wasn't angry; she was passionate. They had already lost four roses.

"Your attempts to spread libelous/slanderous and defamatory remarks about my wife and son have raised serious and irreparable injury to her and my family's reputation," Arthur Berry wrote. "I request that you immediately cease and desist."

Later, McBride said the Berrys sent a message to a neighbor, allegedly lining up a row of dead roses on her yard.

"Like you would see on 'The Godfather,'" McBride said.

Alexandria Berry denied doing that.

GROWING DISPUTE

In July, McBride wrote a letter to the Berrys on behalf of the association. He said they were in violation of seven neighborhood covenants, including painting their house, failing to skirt their deck and distributing literature about the rose disease. Arthur Berry told McBride the violations were not legitimate.

Six days later, on July 20, the Berrys' 14-year-old daughter posted flyers about their missing Calico cat, Coco. Association board members told her she was defacing neighborhood property. One member, Trenda Cordell, called 911.

"They're putting up signs, and she's saying the F-word to us," Cordell told a dispatcher. "It's an HOA neighborhood. You can't go around putting up signs. It's a missing cat. And I need [an officer] as fast as we can get one."

"You're arguing about missing cat signs, is that right?" the dispatcher asked.

An officer showed up, just to explain the issue was not a matter for the police.

On Aug. 26, Alexandria Berry called 911 on another neighbor, Mike Culberson, after she said he stopped and took pictures of her house. She wrote in an affidavit that Culberson said her yard looked like garbage, with its dead grass and dead plants and collections of animal droppings scattered like landmines. He allegedly made fun of her weight, too. An officer again responded to the neighborhood to explain the dispute was not a crime.

But matters became a bit more serious on Sept. 10, when Arthur Berry and his son got into a fight with Culberson. The Berrys told the Walker County Sheriff's Office that Culberson drove past the house, holding up his middle finger. (Culberson denied that.) Arthur Berry and his son then confronted Culberson in his driveway, and a fight broke out with punches and headlocks in a vacant lot across the street from their house.

In the middle of the fight, Alexandria Berry emerged from her home with a .22 rifle. She said she needed to protect her husband's life. Culberson, meanwhile, criticized an incident report about the case, which mentions Alexandria Berry held the gun in a non-threatening manner.

"If she carried a loaded weapon out into a neighborhood street," he said, "I don't care if she's holding it with her teeth. How can it be non-threatening?"

After the incident, a neighbor emailed the Times Free Press: "My kids are not allowed to walk past the Barrys [sic] home (especially now that we know they have a gun)and we haven't been able to relax and feel comfortable in our homes since this occurred."

The sheriff's office charged both men with affray. Arthur Berry pleaded guilty in October, while Culberson's case is still pending.

Eight days after the fight, Culberson called the police to report Alexandria Berry for cursing at him and filming him while he mowed his lawn. Two days later, Alexandria Berry called the police to report Culberson for flying a remote controlled airplane above her house. Neither complaint led to criminal charges.

TAKING IT TO COURT

Fieldstone Farms Owners Association filed its lawsuit against the Berrys on Oct. 26, asking a judge to order the family to bring their home up to code. McBride said he has represented the association for several years and has never seen a dispute simmer to the point of court action.

"They forced our hand," McBride said. "The HOA was the last party that wanted to go to court."

Representing themselves, the Berrys filed a counterclaim on Nov. 27. They said the neighborhood association harassed them, defamed them, selectively enforced the rules and failed to uphold their obligations — not combating the rose disease and letting dogs run around without leashes. They said the board's actions caused "severe emotional distress."

Asked what the family will do next, Alexandria Berry was not sure. They knew the neighborhood had covenants when they came here; they just didn't think problems would escalate like this. They might move. But selling a house in the middle of a lawsuit seems tough, she said.

So they'll wait here for now, in their Alabaster house. She doesn't know why people don't like the color.

"Maybe they don't like me," she said. "Maybe they're being prejudiced against my family. I don't know, to be honest. I'm baffled."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.