Vietnam veteran’s neighborhood dispute prompts flag-flying bill

Tuesday, February 22, 2000

Editor's note: In 2001, Virginia Governor James Kilgore III signed the “Wyndham Flag Bill” into action, protecting property owners’ right to fly their flags. The bill, an amendment to Virginia Title 55:512, was backed by Virginia State Sen. Bill Bolling (R-Hanover), and originated as a result of a dispute between the Wyndham Foundation, a homeowners’ association in Virginia, and Richard Oulton, a former resident in Wyndham-run Dominion View Estates. Co-authored by Bolling and Oulton, the bill prohibits homeowners’ associations from placing greater restrictions on flags that those found in local-ordinance-display prohibitions. However, a Henrico Country Circuit Court ruled on July 26, 2001 against Oulton, saying that he must pay the Wyndham Foundation $95,000 in restitution for the legal fees incurred by the association for bringing suit against Oulton. According to Judge L.A. Harris Jr., the new law did not grant Oulton permission to fly his flag, both because the suit was filed before the law was passed, and because the issue was not over the right to fly patriotic flags, but the illegal flagpole from which Oulton’s flag hung. — Reported by Laura Breslin

When Richard Oulton moved into his new 10,000-square-foot home near Richmond, Va., last year, he resumed his tradition of flying both his U.S. flag and his Purple Heart flag in his yard every patriotic holiday.

Using two collapsible poles — one 20 feet high, the other 16 feet — Oulton hoists his 4-foot-by-6-foot U.S. flag and his 3-by-5 Purple Heart flag three or four times a year. During the rest of the year, he stores the poles in his garage.

But on June 1, 1999, the day after Memorial Day, the homeowners' association of his new neighborhood cited him, declaring the two flags to be visual nuisances. After it cited Oulton twice more, the association filed a lawsuit to bar the Vietnam veteran from using the flagpoles in his yard in the future.

Association members talking to reporters from newspapers including The Washington Post and the Richmond Times-Dispatch compared their action against Oulton to their effort to bar another resident from placing a purple Barney statue on her front porch.

And now the Virginia General Assembly has gotten involved.

The state Senate recently approved a bill that would bar homeowners' associations from restricting the display of U.S., state or military flags if the associations don't explicitly provide reasonable restrictions in the neighborhood's covenants.

Oulton, in a telephone interview, said the covenants for the Wyndham neighborhood contain detailed restrictions 'for everything you could think of from dog houses and compost piles to TV antennas.'

'Certainly the draftsman that got so specific about compost piles would have included flags and flagpoles had there been any intention to, in any way, restrict these items,' Oulton said. 'A flag atop a pole is not some weird thing that could never have been anticipated.'

Officials with the HHHunt Corp., a management firm that developed Wyndham, say the issue with Oulton has never been about the flag but about the height of the two flagpoles.

'All homeowners in Wyndham are free, and have always been free, to fly the American flag (and frequently do) or any flag of their choosing, in accordance with the guidelines of the community,' company officials said in a statement.

“Importantly, the failure of the board to deny this appeal could have undermined the board's future ability to restrict the installation of a variety of dominant structures that would be highly visible from other homes.'

But Oulton contends that his flagpoles were neither dominant structures or highly visible from other homes.

'I have had TV people drive by my house twice and they didn't even notice the poles,' Oulton said.

State Sen. William Bolling, sponsor of the 'Patriotic Flag Bill,' says his bill is designed to protect citizens' First Amendment right to display flags but also allow homeowners' groups to draft reasonable limits on flagpoles.

On Jan. 27, the state Senate voted 39-0 to approve the measure. The bill is now before the General Laws Committee of the House of Delegates.