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Residents ask: When is a truck not a truck?

(ran Vendor edition of METRO & STATE)

Ed Tafelski is an affable, softspoken man, an engineer with an affinity for big, expensive trucks.

Not the kind that contractors favor, with commercial signs and heavy racks, overflowing with ladders and machinery.

Rather, Tafelski likes pickup trucks, comfortable pickup trucks with roomy back seats, preferably made by Dodge, judging by the last two he bought.

Until this year, Tafelski's choice in vehicles was never a problem.

But then he got the letter.

Addressed to homeowners in Westchester Lakes Townhomes, a well-manicured development off Countryside Boulevard, the letter arrived from the property manager, explaining that deed restrictions ban trucks from the subdivision, except when parked in garages.

Problem is, garages in Westchester Lakes are small as garages go, built in the early 1990s, well before the explosion in super-size passenger trucks and SUVs.

So Tafelski, 54, was faced with a choice: sell his shiny new 2002 Dodge Ram quad cab or find a new home.

"These aren't options to people," he said last week, exasperated. "I mean, talk about stupid."

Along with a handful of neighborhood truck owners, Tafelski decided to fight the ban, on the grounds that it had never been enforced; even the president of the homeowner's association owned a pickup.

What's more, the group argued, the deed restrictions are vague; they don't outlaw pickups specifically, just trucks in general. The intent, they believe, was to keep eyesores out of the neighborhood, not restrict pickups used as passenger vehicles.

Adding insult to injury, said Tafelski, condominiums directly across a narrow driveway from Westchester Lakes, just feet away in places, allow parking for pickups.

"For everybody around us," he said, "it's not an issue."

But in Westchester Lakes, the problem has proved nettlesome, splitting the tiny community of 53 families into factions.

Tafelski and a once-friendly neighbor no longer speak when they meet at the mail box.

A push last spring to change the rule earned an overwhelming majority, with 75 percent of homeowners voting yes. But deed restrictions require 90 percent approval to make changes, a number Tafelski says is insurmountable. He has proposed another vote to reduce the 90-percent rule to a more achievable two thirds.

Meanwhile, the homeowners association board of directors is stumped, said president Lucy Sasscer. Hoping to settle the matter once and for all, they're going to court to ask a judge to decide when a truck is a truck.

"It's all in your point of view," Sasscer said last week. "We've had different attorneys tell us different things."

One homeowner argued that SUVs, and perhaps even minivans, should be classified as trucks, meaning more than 40 vehicles at Westchester Lakes would have to go.

"At this point in time, the board has no opinion what it means," said Sasscer of the word "truck." "We just want someone to tell us."

For Jeff Becker, owner of a black Ford F250 Super Duty with a sticker price of $35,000, going to court is a needless expense. The association board, he said, should take a stand.

"We don't need a judge to decide," he said. "We need to write up our own criteria."

Becker, 45, said he didn't read every line of the deed restrictions before buying a home in Westchester Lakes two years ago. But he remembers seeing trucks and other big vehicles parked on the property: "I said, "They've got pickups, they've got campers' . . . I thought, "This is a nice place.' "

The root of the problem, say Tafelski and Sasscer, is a disgruntled neighbor who was forced by deed restrictions to get rid of an RV. He noticed the truck ban and threatened to sue, claiming selective enforcement.

"That's kind of really how it got started," said Sasscer. "It never really occurred to us to look into the definition of trucks."

Now Tafelski, who moved to Westchester Lakes in 1993, uses words like, "dictatorial," and "gestapo," to describe the homeowners association. His son drives his truck and has it in Michigan at college. Over the holidays, though, Tafelski worries he will get cited when his son returns.

"It's totally absurd," he said. "These are expensive vehicles. Pickup trucks aren't the old red-neck trucks."

The association's attorney says the board is stuck enforcing the rules it inherited from the developer. And the rules, she argued, are clear.

"I think "trucks' is not vague at all," said Elizabeth Mannion. "Trucks is trucks."

All the same, Mannion acknowledged a certain reluctance to take the matter to court.

"Part of the problem historically has simply been that these older homeowners documents, they were drafted at a time when pickup trucks were not as fashionable and were regarded as pulling the neighborhood down," she said.

In the end, Mannion said, the neighbors will have to live with each other.

"It is unfortunate for sure that the association is having to spend some money here on this issue," she said. "In the bigger picture of life, you know, children are starving to death."

_ Jennifer Farrell can be reached at 445-4160 or farrellsptimes.com.

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