Mike Merola erected a 20-foot flagpole in his backyard soon after he moved into his current home in March 2009. Merola, 60, a Marine from 1969 to 1977, has flown the American flag for years, typically replacing it twice a year to maintain its appearance.
But now, Merola's homeowners' association in Cypress, Texas, 40 minutes northwest of Houston, says he and his wife, Sylvia, need to stop. It filed a complaint last month saying its rules limit pole heights to six feet and only allow poles attached to residents' homes.
That has the ex-military man and some of his neighbors fighting mad.
"Because I served this country for eight years, I feel every American citizen who has served and others who want to honor those who paid the ultimate price should be able to fly the American flag," said Merola. "I have had nothing but compliments on this. The HOA is the only ones that have a problem with it."
Though his application to fly his flag was denied, Merola is doing it anyhow.
But the Lakeland Village Community Association isn't backing down, either. It has filed a complaint in the Harris County District Court requesting "permanent injunctive relief" that Merola remove the flagpole.
Merola and his wife were served on Dec. 20 and filed a response on Jan. 11. The association requested that the court grant statutory damages of $10 per day of violation and attorney fees. No hearing date has been set.
Nina Tran, the attorney representing the Lakeland Village Community Association, said her client encourages that residents fly the American flag but has regulations in place to be consistent with its members.
"If you have a freestanding flagpole, someone may eventually want a 50- or 100-foot pole," said Tran. "Everyone is in support of displaying a freestanding pole. But what if someone wants to display a swastika? There may be future things that are offensive to one person and supported by someone else."
Merola argued the association's flag guidelines do not apply in his case because they are specific to front yards.
He added that the rules are in violation of the Freedom to Display the American Flag Act of 2005, which forbids residential real estate management associations from adopting or enforcing "any policy, or enter into any agreement, that would restrict or prevent a member of the association from displaying the flag."
However, Tran said the Freedom to Display the American Flag Act permits the homeowners' association to regulate the time, manner and place of the display, including the flagpole.
Lee Thweat, Merola's attorney, did not see the distinction.
"The display of the flag and flagpole, in our views, are intertwined," Thweat said. "You can't have a flag without a flagpole."
Thweat added that some residents have asked him if there is a way to restrict or limit their homeowner association fees that may be funding the association's case.
"Certainly Mike and Sylvia have wondered, 'Why are our dues being used to sue us when no one has complained' and the Freedom to Display the American Flag Act gives them protection?" said Thweat, a former Marine who representing the Merolas without charge.
Sylvia Merola said annual fees are about $915.
"It is quite a bit," she said. "Fees for the other house we lived in were around $300."
Some of Merola's neighbors said they do not have a problem with his flagpole.
"I think it's ridiculous the flag can't be flown," said Jim King, one of Merola's neighbors.