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Neighbors sue coach over fence

Amanda Michaels | Monday, September 20, 2004

Notre Dame head football coach Tyrone Willingham has faced criticism about his gridiron offense and defense before, but now it is his wrought-iron fence that is coming under fire.

On Sept. 10, the Quail Ridge at Knollwood Homeowners Association filed suit against Willingham and his wife, Kim, at the St. Joseph County Circuit Court, contending that the fence under construction in their backyard is in violation of the association’s covenants.

The lawsuit demands that the Willinghams stop the project and change their plans to comply with the neighborhood’s bylaws.

Stephen Studer, attorney for the Willinghams, said the fence going up – described as 5-feet high, black, stylistic and imitation wrought-iron – is not against a community covenant, as it runs seven to nine feet within the property’s perimeter. Landscaping will be added in the area between the fence and the legal border.

According to association rules, perimeter fences must be split-rail with chain-link unless a variance is granted by the architectural review committee.

Association attorney Shawn Ryan said the fence is still in violation of the covenant, regardless of its location.

“Whether it’s three inches, three feet or three yards doesn’t change the definition of a perimeter fence,” Ryan said. “The covenants do not specifically define perimeter, but common sense tells us that it would include a fence that is slightly set in to the property, like the one in question is.”

The Willinghams approached the board in 2002 about the project, and since that time were granted a variance allowing the ornamental fence to be placed around the pool but not extend beyond the sides of the house. Studer said the suggested fence would have inconveniently bisected the backyard, and was not an acceptable alternative.

Studer said the purpose behind the fence was to keep neighborhood children and pets from accidentally falling into the pool and to alleviate privacy concerns.

“It’s a very nice fence, and they’ve gone to great expense to create something upscale that fits in with the neighborhood,” Studer said.

The rationale behind the Association’s covenant is to protect the open appearance of the neighborhood, Ryan said.

The suit was signed and prepared for filing on Aug. 20, Ryan said, but the board waited until Sept. 10 to give the Willinghams the opportunity to make an amended proposal.

No such proposal was presented, but construction on the fence was halted when the lawsuit was filed, Studer said.

“We stopped construction right away and asked that the board sit down and look at the plans,” he said. “We don’t think the board members have ever seen the location of the fence, and we want them to look at it to see that we’re being reasonable.”

Neighbors have played a vocal role in the conflict, but each party claimed to have the community’s support on its side.

Ryan said complaints from residents alerted the board to the construction, while Studer said 12 of the Willinghams’ neighbors wrote letters in support of the fence plans.

In actuality, the board has discussed changing the Association’s covenant regarding fencing allowances, but amendments can’t be made without the approval of two-thirds of residents.

“The board talking about changing the covenants and changes being approved are two different things,” Ryan said. “The Willinghams just jumped the gun.”

A hearing has been scheduled for Oct. 6, and while no meeting between the parties before then has been scheduled, attorneys for both sides said one is not out of the question.