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Consumer Reports

Man protests restrictions by painting purple polka dots on house | (KRT) AVONDALE ESTATES, Ga. - When this town's preservation panel rejected his request to change the front stoop of his 1950s-era house, Stan Pike retaliated with a simple act of civil disobedience. He painted the house bright lime green with purple polka dots.

Several neighbors followed Pike's lead, placing polka dots on trees, garages and even a church in a show of solidarity against the town's restrictive covenants that they say are too harsh and often inconsistent.

The protest has drawn unwanted attention to this little town on the outskirts of Atlanta and refreshed a longstanding debate over public covenants and how far communities can go to preserve their historic integrity.

"Ninety-eight percent of the community has given me the thumbs up because they are tired of this ridiculous committee dictating to people what they can and cannot do," said Pike, a 51-year-old building contractor who has lived in Avondale Estates for 15 years. "This is not Charleston or Savannah, where the buildings are 100 years old. Many of these homes, including mine, were built in the 1950s."

The controversy in Avondale Estates - one of the nation's oldest planned communities and a town listed on the National Register of Historic Places - exemplifies a trend facing historic communities across the country, and particularly in the South, where the national preservation movement began in an effort to save what was left of the region's heritage after the Civil War. There are ongoing battles over preservation, involving those who think they should be allowed to do whatever they want to their property and those who want to stop them. The issue divides communities, often pitting the young against the old, the progressives against the traditionalists, and in some cases, the rich against the poor.

While most people agree that preservation is essential, some in the South question whether towns such as Avondale Estates have become too zealous in their protection attempts and whether citizen committees are suited to make such decisions.

"If the community doesn't have its act together, you really run into problems. And if you have a committee, it has to be consistent and diligent in implementing the rules," said Hector Abreau, chairman of the historic preservation department at Georgia's Savannah College of Art and Design. "When the rules are not concise and descriptive, people try to interpret what they mean. If you are wishy-washy with the criteria, you lose credibility and are unable to enforce them."

Avondale Estates, a community of 2,600 in suburban DeKalb County, is the only documented example in the Southeast of an early 20th Century planned "new town." It was the concept of self-made millionaire George Willis, who envisioned a safe, suburban neighborhood with English Tudor-style residential and commercial structures, ample parks and its own government. However, Willis lost most of his money during the Depression, and his plan never reached fruition. So what began as a stately designed community ended up as a hodgepodge of structures _a combination of large Tudor houses and small 1950s-era homes such as Pike's.

Still, the town was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, and since then, residents have tried to maintain its architecture, having established a six-member committee to approve structural alterations. Residents who disagree can appeal to the city's board of commissioners. City officials decided this month to no longer speak publicly about the issue, pending the outcome of Pike's appeal this Tuesday.

"Avondale Estates is a unique community in that the people want progress but they want things to stay the same, too. It has always been a very staid, traditional community, but because the codes are so strict, things sometimes fall into disrepair," said Sue Ellen Owens, executive director of the DeKalb History Center.

"Willis' dream ended during the Depression, and over the years one of the chief motivators for people has been to try and keep that vision alive," she said. "Every town has its collective image, and what defines Avondale Estates is its Tudor village and the houses that reflect that architecture."

Many residents, however, would like the town to ease up on its restrictions or at least make them consistent. About a half-dozen of Pike's neighbors have decided to take advantage of a loophole in the covenants that does not dictate what color a house can be painted.

"When I went to the committee, they turned me down," said Pike, who lives in another house in Avondale Estates and is renovating the polka-dot house to sell. "They have approved radical changes for other houses, and there are 30 homes with the same stairs that I wanted to build. I'm not looking to put a clock tower on the roof or a steeple, so this is just discrimination and it's stupid. This committee has made the whole town look like a joke."

Anne Kerner has a history of battles with the preservation panel, and to show her support for Pike she painted polka dots on a large tree in her front yard. The tree stands in front of a 12-foot-tall metal structure, known as twisted chicken. Some residents and city officials have called it "abominable."

After the committee had turned her down, Kerner, 51, had difficulty getting the city to narrowly approve her unique yard art - upside-down man holding red roosters on his foot and hand. She also has drawn the ire of some neighbors for the array of items in her front yard that she describes as eclectic. Still, she said she loves living in the community, where people are close and friendly and no one is afraid to walk alone at night.

"To me it's an issue of freedom of choice," said Kerner, who has lived in Avondale Estates four years. "We don't need a committee to tell us what we can do. We can accomplish the same thing through zoning. People understand how important it is to maintain the community, so you are not going to have anybody putting tires in the front yard and turning them into planters."

Steve Drapeau, 35, said he has been amazed by what has occurred in the neighborhood since he moved in from Connecticut last summer. In silent protest, he placed a pink flamingo in the flower garden in front of his apartment, though it is partially hidden by a shrub.

"Anybody knows that a house built in 1966 is not a high point in architectural history. They are trying to preserve something here that they really can't," said Drapeau. "A lot of people are tired of them telling us arbitrarily what we can and cannot do. So we will all be at that meeting to let them know."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services