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Feds sue Minnetonka condo over ban on playing in grass

  • Article by: PAUL WALSH and JOY POWELL
  • Star Tribune staff writers
  • November 27, 2013 - 2:09 AM

 

A large Minnetonka condominium complex’s ban on playing in the grass has drawn a lawsuit from federal officials contending that the policy illegally discriminates against families with children.

The lawsuit, which was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis by U.S. Department of Justice officials, claims that the Greenbrier Village II homeowners association, the management company and the property manager violated the federal Fair Housing Act.

According to the suit, resident Elaine Gustafson received a notice from property management in August 2011, reporting that the complex had received a complaint “about the children in your care being out on the grass by the building.”

The letter from complex manager Diane Brown suggested that Gustafson’s great-grandchildren could use the playground on the other side of busy Cedar Lake Road, adding that if the children continued playing in the complex’s grass, “I will have no other option than to begin fining you for each violation of this rule.”

Attorneys for the homeowners association and the complex’s management firm said Tuesday that the discrimination claims are false. The rules at issue, they said, prohibit playing in landscaping, include other restrictions and apply to people of all ages.

The homeowners association was concerned not only about maintaining peace at the complex, which is between Hopkins Crossroad and Hwy. 169, but also keeping children safe, said Edina attorney David G. Hellmuth, who represents the association.

Gustafson had taken custody of her two great-grandchildren, now ages 9 and 11, in April 2010. The next year, the homeowners association formed a committee to look at changing rules regarding playing on the grounds and in common areas.

On July 25, 2011, the association enacted a rule banning playing, picnicking and sunbathing on lawns, sidewalks, landscaped areas and parking areas. It also banned the use of bicycles, tricycles, scooters, skates, skateboards, Rollerblades and more.

The suit claims that while kids weren’t allowed to ride bikes, nobody stopped adults from riding often.

Another regulation, in effect since August 2003, bans children from playing in hallways, stairwells, driveways, elevators, garages or any potentially dangerous area of the property.

A reminder sent to the family months after the first letter arrived noted that “the sounds of children playing near a building can be disturbing, especially if they are yelling, screaming or crying,” the suit claims.

Federal officials said there is no evidence that Gustafson’s great-grandchildren damaged any property at the 462-unit complex.

As a result of the letters, the suit contends, “the children remained inside, even during good weather.”

Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels, who works in the department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement about the suit Tuesday that “families with children should have the same ability to enjoy their homes as all other tenants.”

Named as defendants are the Greenbrier Village homeowners association, the Gassen Co. Inc. property management firm of Eden Prairie and Brown, the complex’s on-site manager.

Gassen officials learned of the suit Tuesday, said Kyle Hegna, an Edina-based attorney representing the firm.

“Our position is that we, Gassen Company, denies that any alleged discrimination or discriminatory statements have taken place, as far as Gassen’s concerned,” Hegna said.

Said Hellmuth: “We dispute that the association, Gassen or their manager [Brown] discriminated against anyone.”

The suit, which was initiated after Gustafson complained about the complex to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, also claims that the management failed to adequately distribute the rules about children’s activities to its residents. It seeks a court order prohibiting future discrimination, monetary damages and a civil penalty.

Gassen and the homeowners association recently settled another alleged discrimination case involving children.

In that case brought by HUD officials last year, the condo association and management were accused of maintaining a policy that prohibited families with children younger than 18 from living in the Greenbriar Village III building.

 

pwalsh@startribune.com • 612-673-4482 jpowell@startribune.com • 612-673-7750

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