SUDDEN VALLEY - On the eve of elections, a power struggle in this private neighborhood on Lake Whatcom has led to a lawsuit and forced the editor of the community newspaper to pull its latest edition under threat of legal action.
The lawsuit, filed last month in Whatcom County Superior Court, and the Nov. 3 election are about the dues paid by Sudden Valley lot owners.
On one side are former members of the Sudden Valley Community Association's board of directors, who want to increase dues significantly to pay for community needs.
Buildings are in disrepair, this group says, and the association faces expensive fixes to culverts and Lake Louise Dam. Also, there may not be enough money for snow removal in a bad winter, said Curt Casey, a former board president and one of three residents who filed the lawsuit.
"Some of the maintenance staff have been terminated ... so we're not staying abreast of our needs," Casey said.
Board President Scott Wagter rejected the claim that maintenance needs aren't being met. The staff was reduced by two, including one temporary position, he said in an email. Any cuts were a consequence of spending decisions made by the previous board, he said.
"We still have sufficient staff to care for our common areas, and ... more efficient maintenance practices are being introduced," Wagter wrote.
The lawsuit claims the current board is violating state law by requiring 60-percent approval by lot owners for dues increases. State law says a homeowners association may increase dues unless more than half of eligible voters reject the increase. With 3,208 lots in Sudden Valley, that would require 1,605 no votes. Property owners get one vote for every lot they own.
A measure in next month's election would change the voting requirement from 60 percent to a simple majority.
After a dues increase in 2008, owners pay $717.56 a year for developed lots and $612.88 for undeveloped lots. Proposals for further increases were rejected the following two years.
A major dues hike, including a 31 percent increase for owners of developed lots, passed in November 2011. Later that month the newly elected board rescinded the increase, saying the dues vote didn't conform to the bylaws.
Jack Spreitzer is an outspoken supporter of the current board. His wife Dee joined the board earlier this year. Legally, he said, association bylaws trump state law, which only applies to matters the bylaws don't address.
That argument is the crux of the lawsuit, which Spreitzer mentioned in a half-page advertisement he put in Sudden Valley Views, the community newspaper published by the homeowners association and edited by Lewis Publishing of Lynden. In the ad, Spreitzer urged voters in the upcoming elections to reject four candidates for the board who he said supported the 2011 dues increase.
Backlash over the ad from Casey and others prompted Mike Lewis of Lewis Publishing to pull his first run of the 3,000-circulation monthly and reprint it after the ad had been changed.
Casey said in an Oct. 2 email to Lewis Publishing that the four candidates were not associated with the lawsuit, as the ad suggested, and the ad maligned them and tried to intimidate members of the association into voting against them.
Newsstand copies of the October Views were distributed in Sudden Valley on the afternoon of Oct. 2 but were removed by Lewis Publishing the following morning.
Lewis, who publishes the Lynden Tribune and Ferndale Record, said he is absorbing the cost of the second print run, which was available Monday, Oct. 8.
"Yes, we've had plenty of phone calls, and we've had threats of legal action, but more than anything it boils down to the fact that our legal advice was to reprint and do some editing that would minimize the possibility of any type of legal action," Lewis said.
The ad was changed with Spreitzer's help. Lewis Publishing also decided to remove at least one letter to the editor, after Casey complained the association was violating its own limit on the number of letters members are allowed.
"People are very determined in their viewpoints there, and they're not afraid to tell us about them," Lewis said. "We're not trying to censor anything. We're just trying to do our job as editor of the newspaper."
Lewis, who has an outsider's perspective and years of experience with the association, said there is some common ground between the two sides.
"I think most people realize they need to generate a little more revenue, and dues increases aren't totally out of the question. It's just how to institute that," Lewis said.
Measures on this year's ballot to raise dues by $60 only for big-ticket expenses and to place a 10 percent cap on future dues increases aren't enough for Casey.
"That would prevent any future board from offering a solution to a problem that may require more dues increases," he said, adding, "Sixty dollars is pulled out of the air. That's just a number."
Spreitzer said the push for much higher dues highlights a class distinction in the community, which has a marina and golf course but also a large number of renters and absentee owners.
People like him, he said, and some of the 700 owners of undeveloped lots just want to cover the costs of road maintenance and basic administration, Spreitzer said.
"They could care less about golf courses and so forth," he said.
Casey compared the Sudden Valley residents who don't want all the amenities to people in Bellingham who don't use the parks or the city pool.
"They're still required to pay the taxes," Casey said.
What: Candidate social.
When: 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14.
Where: Sudden Valley Dance Barn, 8 Barnview Court (Gate 2).
Features: Candidates for the Sudden Valley Community Association Board of Directors, and the Nominations and Elections Committee
More info: suddenvalley.com.