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Editorial: Difference between SC government and homeowner associations is no joking matter

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Megan Smith and her daughter Rylie Smith spot the wolf in a yard during the Dunes West animal scavenger hunt last month in Mount Pleasant. Not all communities welcome creative efforts by neighbors to connect during the coronavirus pandemic. Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

A neighborhood in Dunes West in Mount Pleasant, is keeping children and adults alike connected with shamrock hunts, bear hunts, heart hunts and, more recently, a scavenger hunt, complete with stuffed animals and toys peering out of windows, leaning over balconies and frolicking in front yards.

Neighbors in one Hanahan community organized a chalk-art competition, resulting in a vibrant visual parade of driveway mermaids bobbing in cresting waves, swirling colorful patterns and messaging imploring people to “Wash your hands,” “Enjoy the little things” and remember that “We are all in this together.”

Children and adults are drawing hopscotch courts in their driveways, on the sidewalk and even in the streets for neighbors to hop through during their increasingly frequent evening walks, as housebound people find ways to connect emotionally at a moment when physical connection is dangerous.

This is the sort of response you’d expect when residents of our nation’s friendliest region get ordered to stay home and stop interacting directly with other people — a way to maintain that human connection, even if remotely, lessen the monotony and relieve the stress borne of the coronavirus pandemic.

But in Mount Pleasant’s Snee Farm golf community? Not so much.

There, Susannah Cahillane tried to welcome the increased foot traffic by posting a large sign in her front yard with a “joke of the day” (“I ordered a chicken and an egg from Amazon. I’ll let you know.”). As The Post and Courier’s David Slade reported, Ms. Cahillane was rewarded with a warning that her sign wasn’t allowed. When she transferred her daily joke to strips of cloth and ran them up a makeshift flagpole, she got a second notice, saying she would be fined.

The tone-deaf warning to stop being neighborly during a time of crisis didn’t come from the town or the county. It came from her homeowners association.

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The U.S. Constitution gives us a lot of freedom over what we can do with our property, and a lot of freedom to share our opinion — even if our opinion is a joke. But homeowners associations generally don’t have to comply with the Constitution, because even though they have as much power as government on some topics, they aren’t government. They’re private organizations whose rules you agreed to obey when you bought your home.

Now it’s true that the people who run homeowner associations can sometimes get carried away with their power and enforce rules that don’t exist, or enforce them in one of the very few ways that violates the law. For the most part, though, if you don’t like the rules in your homeowner association, you can either try to get them changed — and good luck with that; it’s a lot easier to get an actual government to change its mind — or you can move.

Ms. Cahillane ended up escaping a fine, but only after she backed down and stopped providing a socially distanced dose of corny good neighborliness. But her experience provides a useful reminder that the rigid, sometimes nonsensical enforcement of “the rules” isn’t confined to government bureaucrats.

Rather, rigidity is a property of rules, be they private, corporate or governmental. Aggressive enforcement ... well, that’s a tendency of certain human beings, regardless of where they work. And during these trying times, when a lot of rule-skirting can be deadly, we all might be better off  if we looked for areas where it’s safe to give each other a break — like when it comes to sharing a joke from a safe distance.

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