Henrico County VA

Flagging Attention

“Henrico Homeowners Association Bans War Hero From Flying American Flag”

This is not exactly the type of national attention that Henrico County – and specifically the Sussex Square Homeowners Association – might seek out. And yet, it is the type that both have received recently in light of a drawn-out debacle that began when 90-year-old retired Army Col. Van T. Barfoot built a 21-foot flagpole on his western Henrico property from which to fly an American flag.

The homeowners association objected to the pole, deeming it unsightly, and ordered Barfoot to remove it. He refused. And thus began a great American outrage that quickly spread from blogs to Facebook fan pages and hometown newspapers throughout the country. Politicians on both sides of the aisle weighed in. So did military veterans and patriotic Americans from all corners of the map. In the end, the homeowners' association wilted under the pressure and allowed Barfoot to keep his flagpole.

In a matter such as this, it is easy to let emotion guide the way. Col. Barfoot is a gentle 90-year-old man with a storied military past who simply wants to display the American flag on a pole in his property – who could object to that?

But the best decisions rarely are made on emotion.

Homeowners' associations have no emotional supporters. They make us all paint our shutters the same colors and pay dues to support a swimming pool we may or may not use. Their existence isn't quite the stuff of legend.

Yet they exist for a purpose, and everyone who buys property in a neighborhood with such an association knows what price – literally and figuratively – comes with it. Those who don't want to obey an association's rules should move to a place that isn't governed by one.

Ultimately this case was about the association's right to determine what to permit and what to forbid. Whether or not we, Col. Barfoot or anyone else agrees or disagrees with its rules, we all should respect its right to institute them. In the end, this association chose to make an exception and allow Col. Barfoot's flagpole to remain. It was well within its right to do so, just as it would have been had it opted to forbid the flagpole.

But despite claims far and wide to the contrary, this was never an issue about simply flying an American flag. The flag just happened to present a convenient emotional aspect upon which many seized. It's unlikely anyone would have come to Col. Barfoot's defense had his flagpole been designed to fly a New York Mets flag instead.

We tend to get passionate about our nation and its symbols, and usually that's a great thing. In this case, though, it was slightly misguided. This issue had nothing to do with patriotism.

Suppose Col. Barfoot had decided to build a 100-foot flagpole and fly a 50-foot American flag from it? Would that have been appropriate in the neighborhood? Would politicians have supported his crusade if instead of being a war hero he was merely a successful physician or diligent trash collector? Would it matter if he were a convicted felon? Or a white supremacist? What will happen if Col. Barfoot dies or sells his home and the new property owner decides to fly a Nazi flag from the pole?

Suppose the next 90-year-old war hero who seeks similar preferential treatment is later found to have committed a crime, cheated on his wife or failed to pay child support? What then? (In case we need evidence that people aren't always who we believe them to be, the latest tale of a Tiger Woods dalliance is only a click away.)

Should a police officer decide not to write a speeding ticket to a 90-year-old woman he clocks going 85 mph in a 25 mph zone simply because she taught Sunday school every week for 70 years? Should he, in the same instance, issue a ticket to an 18-year-old driver rushing to the hospital to see a parent who just suffered a heart attack?

Ridiculous and far-fetched though they may seem, these examples strike at the heart of this issue: Rules exist for a reason.

Col. Barfoot seems to have lived a life rich in service, love of country and family and with all the best intents. He should be commended for that. But the association never forbade Col. Barfoot from flying the American flag; in fact, its rules specifically outline the manner in which flying a flag of any type IS permitted.

This type of issue is not unique to homeowners' associations. It exists too in the daily routines of school boards, boards of supervisors, city councils and most governing bodies nationwide. When the Henrico County School Board adopted a dress code for employees earlier this year, it labored over some of the most seemingly minute portions of the code (should open-toed sandals be permitted or banned, for example?). Ultimately whether a teacher wore either, it wouldn't affect his or her ability to teach. But since the board decided to adopt such a standard, it had to draw the line somewhere – and stick to it. The homeowners' association in this case is no different.

Such is life in a democracy with laws and codes designed to protect our individual freedoms and those of our neighbors at the same time. Not everyone agrees with the system, but it is the system under which we live.

Isn't that what the flag represents anyway?
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The Scottish Rite Childhood Language Center will host its annual Spaghetti Dinner and Benefit Concert from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Scottish Rite Temple, 4204 Hermitage Rd. Meal… Full text

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