Julia O'Malley

Julia O'Malley writes a general interest column about life and politics in Anchorage and around Alaska. She grew up in Anchorage and has worked at the ADN on and off as a columnist and reporter since 1996. She came back full time as a reporter in 2005.

As a reporter, she covered the court system and wrote extensively about life in Anchorage, including big changes in the city's ethnic and minority communities.

In 2008, she won the Scripps-Howard Foundation's Ernie Pyle award for the best human-interest writing in America. She has also written for the Oregonian, the Juneau Empire and the Anchorage Press.

E-mail her at jomalley@adn.com.

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In Sahalee, beauty is in the eyes of the committee

THE HOME: Olga Alvord and her garage doors. Photos by BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily NewsTHE HOME: Olga Alvord and her garage doors. Photos by BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News

In a Hillside subdivision called Sahalee, there is a war going on at the end of a cul-de-sac among the flawless lawns and three-car garages. It is the kind of war that, no matter what happens, no one will really win.

It has to do with taste, art, conformity and homeowner covenants. It began just after school got out with a garage door belonging to Chip and Olga Alvord.

Chip Alvord is an engineer. Olga teaches English as a second language in the Anchorage School District. They have three children. Olga is also a painter with a degree in art. Her yard is dotted with rocks made to look like ladybugs and benches adorned in flowers and polka dots. Painted cutouts of salmon swim up the railing of her porch. Even the utility boxes are covered with designs.

The winter was a rough one for her family, she said: a cancer scare for her husband, migraines for her son and a blood clot that sent her to the hospital. This spring, an idea took hold. She decided she wanted to paint her largest canvas yet. A mural. On one of her garage doors. It would be a surprise for Chip when he came back from a trip.
“I just had it in me,” she said. “I had to do it.”

Olga painted what she sees from the back windows of her house. A swampy forest of spruce trees. The Chugach Mountains. Sky. It’s the same basic motif that is painted on the big water tank on the other end of the subdivision, near Service High School.

It didn’t take long to capture the attention of the neighbors.

People don’t just paint things in Sahalee. In Sahalee, you have to follow the rules. The subdivision, with roomy houses that tend to fall in the $500,000 to $700,000 range, has a homeowners association with a number of covenants. Mailboxes must be OK’d. Political signs are forbidden. No front yard can have fewer than three trees. All home paint jobs must be approved by the Architectural Committee, a group of volunteers from the neighborhood who report to the homeowners association.

Exterior house paint must be “subdued,” “earth tones, generally muted,” according to the covenants. Occasional accent colors “used judiciously and with restraint may be permitted.” The entire body of the building must be painted the same color. “The subjective matter of approving colors is the responsibility of the appropriate committee.”
Olga says she knew all this. But to her, the door wasn’t the same thing as commercial house painting. It was art. And anyway, she said, it would be temporary.

“I looked through the covenants,” she said. “I didn’t find anything against art.”

A neighbor came by. Did she, the neighbor asked, inform the committee about the garage door? She didn’t think that she had to, she said. She reconsidered and decided to let them know her project was temporary, she said.

It didn’t take long for a formal email to arrive from a neighbor, Greg Brown, who is head of the Architectural Committee. Her house was in violation of the neighborhood rules. The body of the house has to be one color, it said. Members of the committee didn’t want to be in a position of judging art, it said. They wanted a date when the mural would be removed.

Olga could have just given them one. Instead, she painted her second, larger garage door to match.

Olga escaped communism in Russia, she told me earlier this week, by way of explanation.

“Everybody had to think the same way, be the same way,” she said. “And if you didn’t do things that praised communism, nobody could find you anymore.

“I have the right to express myself.”

I reminded her that she’d signed up for this. She and her husband agreed to covenants when they moved in. Some might see the uniformity as part of the beauty of the neighborhood, or if nothing else, a way to ensure against any one house going off the deep end, aesthetically speaking. And to some, maybe the murals were over the line.

But the thing is, she said, the Architectural Committee’s decisions haven’t been consistent. The group has allowed at least 25 doors to be painted different than house colors, she said. One front door is bright red, she said. There is a house just down the way that verged on purple. And a yellow house. What is subdued about yellow?
“I look around and I see so many things that are less attractive than my garage doors,” she said.

She was hurt. How could her neighbors not see her paintings as beautiful? How did they not understand they were art?
I tried to get in touch with the Architectural Committee. I called members, including Brown. I emailed just about all of them. But I did not get a response.

The second mural did not sit well. Some neighbors who used to exchange pleasantries with her stopped, she said. Someone suggested, not so politely, that if she needed to express herself, she do so where no one could see it. Another implied she had trouble understanding English, she said. Then, last week, “They sent over a delegation,” Chip told me. It was members of the committee and the homeowners association.

“They were worried more about precedent-setting,” Chip said.
If they let Olga put art on her door, the art might spread, they said. What if, for example, a young couple moved in and wanted to paint something Gothic, like skulls and crossbones on their garage door? It could bring down property values.

They explained to Olga that if she kept violating the covenants, she and Chip could face fines dished out by the day. Eventually, the fines could total the value of their house. Olga appealed her case to the homeowners association.

When I called the president of the homeowners association, Neil O’Donnell, he said no decision had been made on Olga’s case, so he couldn’t talk about it. A decision would be made, he said, but it wouldn’t be in a formal meeting. Those only happen four times a year.

Instead the board would talk informally. Olga wouldn’t be part of the conversation unless she asked to be. He said he didn’t know how the fining system worked, and he didn’t want to talk about it. The homeowners association doesn’t have to explain its decisions to the readers of the newspaper, he told me.

Before the summer ends, Olga will probably paint over her artwork. The garage doors will return to their required subdued hue. But the ugliness between the Alvords and their neighbors may not be so easily erased.

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