If a man's basement becomes his man-cave, then Eric Marsh's backyard became his man-land.
An oasis. A resort. A place to unwind and relax. Right outside his back door.
Marsh, a 43-year-old software consultant, invested between $300,000 and $400,000 in a backyard wonderland for him and his three daughters — complete with an infinity pool, a sport court and a putting green on his lot and the adjacent one he owns near 196th and Emile Streets.
But something happened once his wonderland became reality.
Jaws dropped. Some neighbors thought it was awesome. Others thought it was awfully out of character for Fire Ridge Estates — a 10-year-old neighborhood of big houses (valued between $250,000 and $450,000) on relatively small lots.
In particular, homeowners association board members didn't exactly do a golf-clap over Marsh's miniature golf course — complete with three tee boxes, chipping areas, even a mini sand trap. They questioned the neighborhood fit of a playground that includes a half-court sport court, basketball hoop, horseshoe stakes, a hog-roasting pit, more than a dozen boulders and 100 landscaping rocks.
One board member sent an email to her colleagues, suggesting they hit 100 golf balls into Marsh's pool to jam up his filter system.
That was either a joke or a threat, depending on the view.
Now, the two sides have taken the Fire Ridge flap to court.
First, Marsh filed a lawsuit requesting a restraining order against the board member — local real estate agent Julie Tartaglia — after she wrote in an email: “For the love of all things holy!! I say we go ... hit (golf) balls all at once into his pool for no less than the time it takes to have 100 go in and clog the filter system that I am sure cost more than most vehicles.”
In a phone interview, Tartaglia said her email “obviously” was a joke. “Anybody who knows me knows that,” she said.
Marsh said he took that email and a follow-up email in which Tartaglia mentioned golf balls breaking his windows so seriously that he spent $15,000 on security cameras to overlook his property.
Then Marsh filed a lawsuit against Tartaglia — writing that her comments “indicate a serious and significant intent on the part of Tartaglia to damage Marsh's property.”
Two weeks later, the board filed its own lawsuit against Marsh — saying he was defiant, didn't follow his own plans and didn't heed neighborhood covenants in building his dreamland.
The lawsuit is among a few court squabbles that take place each year in Omaha over neighborhood covenants. In another squabble last year, a Douglas County district judge dismissed a lawsuit that a homeowners association brought over a basketball hoop on a driveway because, the judge ruled, there was no evidence the neighborhood had ever enforced covenants requiring approval of basketball hoops.
Fire Ridge officials say this case involves much more than a hoop. Among several concerns, board members say they worry about how they can ever again enforce covenants if they don't with Marsh.
Marsh countered that he took great care to follow Fire Ridge's covenants and even used the neighborhood “motif” as he constructed the backyard. He said that the homeowners association approved his project plans — and that any current protest is the product of “petulance” and a power grab by new board members.
According to court records:
Marsh purchased two adjacent lots in Fire Ridge in July 2006.
Typically, developers require houses to be built on each lot. In this case, Marsh was allowed to purchase the adjacent lot as “extra yard space,” the purchase agreement said. About six homeowners have similar arrangements, said Mark Ringsdorf, homeowners association president.
The purchase agreement required that Marsh install sod, sidewalks and a sprinkler system on the vacant lot.
“Defendant failed to comply,” attorney Terry White alleged in the homeowners association lawsuit. “Defendant Marsh failed to sod, install sidewalk or a sprinkler system for more than four (4) years.”
Marsh disagreed on how long it took for him to install those items. At some point, Marsh submitted plans to the homeowners association that, he says, detailed every feature he planned for the lot, from the pool to the putting green.
The board approved the plans — and Marsh set out to build his dream backyard.
The dream soon met with detractors. And the detractors met with Marsh's defiance.
On Dec. 15, 2008, a homeowners association attorney sent Marsh a letter.
“It appears that the basketball court you are installing does not comply with the plan approved by the Committee, in that its location appears to be closer to the street than shown on the plan,” attorney James E. Lang wrote. “We hereby demand that you cease and desist from constructing/installing the basketball court.”
In August, Ringsdorf wrote to Marsh, in part about the artificial turf tee boxes he installed in the yard on the east side of his house.
“The board continues to field complaints about the improvements,” Ringsdorf wrote. “It is evident that some of the improvements were not on the plan that was approved.”
Ringsdorf listed a few: “Fence was not approved. Granted it looks like it matches covenants ... but we would have required the entire backyard be fenced to help screen the backyard. As it sits the fence only circles the pool. ... Tee box in the front yard. This is a safety hazard, not within the conformity and harmony of the neighborhood. ... Flag poles in the back yard. Full sod is required. No astro turf.”
Ringsdorf went on to write: “I do not want to get into a battle with you as the only people that win are the attorneys that get our money. I would propose we meet and discuss a way that you can make some modifications that everyone can live with. ”
Marsh said he followed the board-approved plans to a T — except for a “minor oversight.” His landscape architect mistakenly listed “trees” instead of tee boxes in the side yard.
“The tee boxes on the east side of my house are staying,” Marsh wrote to Ringsdorf. “The tee boxes are well blended into the grass (some people don't even see them at all).”
That wasn't the extent of Marsh's defiance with the board. This fall, Marsh said, a former board president approached Marsh while he was on his putting green, held up a golf ball and said, “I didn't approve you doing this.” When the man pressed him, Marsh said he used the expletive-version of “bug off.”
Marsh followed that exchange with an email: “The appropriate response regarding whether I (or anyone else) hit golf balls should have been, 'The FireRidge HOA Board does not have the authority nor desire to regulate what our residents do inside their own yards or within each other's yards.' Your failure to respond this way continues your harrassment (sic) of me in a way you are not harrassing (sic) any other resident.”
That prompted Tartaglia to write about hitting balls into Marsh's pool. A few minutes later, she sent a follow-up email to her fellow board members. “Sorry for that. I knee jerked. (However I am polishing my clubs. I did win an award for best female drive at a scramble last week. :0) Be a shame if I accidentally hit a window or two or three. But then it wouldn't matter since we don't have any say in what someone does on someone elses property. Whoops and oh well.”
She closed her original email: “Game on buddy!”
Now the game is on in Douglas County District Court over Marsh's golf game, among other things.
Marsh wants an order precluding Tartaglia and “all other parties acting under her direction” from approaching within 200 yards of his property. A hearing is scheduled for early January.
The homeowners association, meanwhile, wants a judge to order Marsh to fence the entire lot, remove the tee boxes, remove three flagpoles and remove the AstroTurf and landscaping. They also want Marsh to move the basketball court.
Ringsdorf called it “absurd” to suggest that Tartaglia threatened Marsh. Ringsdorf said Marsh's wonderland would fit better on an acreage than on the “small lots of Fire Ridge.”
“The quality of the workmanship is not in question,” Ringsdorf said. “I don't think there's too many people who don't think it's pretty cool. Everybody just questions, 'Does that belong in this neighborhood?'”
Marsh stands by his man-land. He said he has invited neighbors over to address concerns — or to just enjoy the pool and putting green. Some have referred to it as “Marsh's Playland” or “FunPlex West.” Others have asked when he's putting in the go-cart track.
How will the flap end?
Ringsdorf guessed that “both sides will have to give a little.” No way, Marsh said.
“It ends in total submission by them,” Marsh said. “You don't go to court with someone with more resources than you. You don't go to court with someone smarter than you. I did things the right way and I've tried pretty diligently to be a good neighbor. I'm not going to back down.”
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