10:44am

Thu December 8, 2011
Lexington/Richmond

Playhouse Dispute Goes Viral

Years ago, it would have been hard to imagine something as routine as a Lexington family's disagreement with a homeowner association grabbing national headlines.

But the story of 3-year-old Cooper Veloudis' playhouse has created a buzz from coast to coast and has even made it overseas. Links to stories and blog posts about the playhouse — which Cooper's family says is instrumental in his physical therapy for cerebral palsy — have fueled online debates that have evolved into phone calls and letters that vilify the Andover Forest Homeowners Association, the organization that ordered the Veloudis family to remove the playhouse because it violates deed restrictions.

Cooper's story generated the same type of buzz that propelled the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church, a tiny church in Pike County, into the national spotlight within 24 hours of some members voting against accepting interracial couples. The church reversed course a week later.

Both stories broke last week, went viral quickly and were told and retold (or re-tweeted) on social networks including Facebook and Twitter.

The concept of local news going national is not new, but how quickly that news spreads is, said Kakie Urch, a University of Kentucky communications professor who teaches students about social media outlets as news-spreading tools.

"When things like The Associated Press wire came into being, we were all of a sudden able to find out things that were happening in California from New York," she said. "The difference now is that with Twitter and Facebook, every single individual ... is his or her own wire service."

Urch said these two stories caught on easily because they deal with American issues, such as race and disability.

"In these two cases, it seems like it's putting a focal point on what a lot of people think are American values of inclusion," she said.

The story of Cooper's playhouse only recently began making waves, but the controversy started several months ago at a home on Sheffield Place, a community of homes with well-kept lawns and brick houses that range from $300,000 to more than $600,000 near the intersection of Man o' War Boulevard and Todds Road.

In April, Dr. George Veloudis and his wife, Tiffiney, installed a $5,000 playhouse for Cooper, who has limited movement on the right side of his body and impaired speech because of cerebral palsy.

The playhouse provides him a place outside his home to do physical therapy exercises, most of which are fun but some of which are painful, Tiffiney Veloudis said.

"We practice climbing in there," she said. "He can climb the stairs on his own now, but before we got the playhouse, he didn't want anything to do with them."

But the playhouse was found in violation of their deed.

The problem is that the large playhouse — a 12-foot by 8-foot enclosed structure that resembles a comely lawnmower shed with a front porch — is prohibited by restrictions on the deeds that all property owners sign when they buy a home in Andover Forest.

Veloudis said she and her husband read the homeowners' agreement before they bought the playhouse, and based on the language of the agreement, they didn't think the playhouse was any different than the tree houses and swing sets already in their neighborhood.

The Veloudises said the playhouse is less obtrusive than the playground equipment — and it helps Cooper. They appealed the violation.

The story was originally reported last Thursday by WLEX, Lexington's NBC affiliate. It has since been picked up by NBC affiliates in Texas, South Carolina and California, and nationally on MSNBC.com.

Tiffiney Veloudis said she has received email and online messages from supporters in dozens of states, and from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and England.

Nearly a week after the story broke, support of the Veloudises is high. At least two online petitions for Cooper to keep his house had reached 500 signatures Wednesday, and one of two Facebook pages dedicated to Cooper's playhouse had reached nearly 6,000 members.

Some of those efforts to help — the email messages and phone calls — mistakenly reached Ryan Finnell, president of the Andover Hills Neighborhood Association. Andover Hills is nearby, but it's not related to Andover Forest.

Finnell said he was a bit "overwhelmed" that folks supporting either side would have such passionate feelings about it "but not bother looking to see whether they're sending their comments to the right people." he said. His inbox has been clogged.

"A minor few of them have been more civil and supportive of the family," Finnell said. "But in the vast majority, I have been called some of the most vile and vulgar and disgusting things I could ever imagine."

The sentiment in many of the messages on the "Cooper's House" Facebook page and blog posts appears to be that there is no good reason to deny Cooper the playhouse, especially because it was recommended by doctors to aid in his physical therapy.

The association took notice of the playhouse because it's in the Veloudis' side yard near their property boundary, rather than in the back yard, and it is a "closed-space structure," which is prohibited in the bylaws, said Nathan Billings, counsel for the Andover Forest Homeowners Association.

"It's exactly the same as one of those outbuildings you could buy at Lowe's or Home Depot," — structures you won't find on any property in Andover Forest, he said.

But there also are legal issues, Billings said.

When dealing with property covenants, making an exception for the Veloudises is not as easy as it sounds. That's especially true, he said, because the Veloudises have never taken the proper steps to request an "accommodation" for the playhouse.

Billings and Ernie Stamper, president of the association, spoke publicly for the first time about the controversy this week.

There are legal avenues to requesting an accommodation, they said, and the board is obligated to uphold them. If the board doesn't, it could be at risk for legal action. Everyone who buys property in Andover Forest agrees to the covenants when they sign their deeds.

In this case, the issue could have been avoided if the Veloudises had consulted with the board before building the playhouse, Stamper said. The board could have then worked with them to create an appropriate design and location.

"If it's already there before we know about it, we obviously don't have that opportunity," he said.

To get an accommodation now, the Veloudises have to meet multiple times with the board and provide medical documentation about Cooper's condition and detail how the playhouse will aid his therapy.

Once the board has the medical documentation, there are other questions it must debate, he said, such as: Is the playhouse the least obtrusive it can be? Will it be removed when the Veloudises move out? How many years will Cooper require it? And could it be replaced by an "open-air" structure similar to the neighborhood swing sets?

In November, after researching guidelines and laws, Billings said the association stood by its determination that the structure was in violation. It told the family last month they would be fined $50 a day until the playhouse was removed and could face a lien on their home if they did not request a hearing on the issue within 10 days.

The Veloudises requested a hearing, which meant the family was not fined, Billings said.

Cooper's parents, the board and attorneys spoke privately at the hearing Monday, the first of several meetings in a process that both sides agree should have begun months ago. Nothing has been resolved.

Meanwhile, Tiffiney Veloudis said her attorney has been searching for provisions that would allow them to keep the house under federal programs such as the Americans with Disabilities Act or the American Fair Housing Act, both of which make it illegal to discriminate against people because of handicap.

Billings said the Americans with Disabilities Act does not apply to homeowner associations, but the board will examine Cooper's medical records to determine whether an accommodation can be granted based on guidelines in the Fair Housing Act.

Veloudis thinks it should.

"Why is it fair for the little boy next door to have this huge swing set to play on, but my child can't have that ... because he can't climb up into a swing set?" she said.