Tiny flag creates big stir for Florida retiree

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A tiny American flag stuck between bright purple flowers on a Jacksonville retiree’s porch has become a tempest in a teapot at a Florida condominium community.

Like many planned communities, The Tides Condominium at Sweetwater — home to 73-year-old Larry Murphree — has strict rules about how one properly displays Christmas lights, parks a car and even flies Old Glory.

After previous objections by the condo association, Murphree festooned the inside of his garage with Christmas lights when his outside display was deemed improper. He moved his guests’ cars when the association complained about how they were parked.

But a request to remove his 17-by-12-inch flag from a flower pot on his porch proved to be the last straw for the U.S. Air Force veteran.

“They want everything just so,” he said about the condo association. “They’ve got to be stopped, and I’m going to stop them. I’ve just dug in my heels.”

Murphree’s tiny flag violates the community’s “flower pot ordinance” which says that “contents of planters are limited to maintained foliage” only, documents show.

Homeowners at The Tides are permitted to display flags, but it must be done in accordance with specific condo rules. The flags must be in flag brackets and hung so they are even with the home’s address plate.

“We have established rules that conform with the U.S. Code and Florida statutes regarding flag etiquette, and we encourage residents to fly American flags in accordance with the state and national standards,” the homeowners association’s lawyers said in a statement.

Strict enforcement of HOA rules is key to keeping communities looking nice and property values high, said Frank Rathbun, spokesman for Community Associations Institute in Falls Church, Virginia, an industry trade association.

“We all respect this gentleman’s service to our country, but good deeds should not enable somebody to break the established rules,” Rathbun said.

“If you make one exception for a veteran with a flag, then you’ll have to do it for someone who wants to build a treehouse above the property line for their kids, or for someone with a strong desire to paint their house a different color.”

The tidily dressed, silver-haired Murphree’s battle over the diminutive flag dates to 2012, when he filed a federal lawsuit over the matter.

That lawsuit argued that the association was violating his free speech rights and the 2005 Freedom to Display the American Flag Act, which prohibits homeowners associations from restricting flag flying.

The two sides settled that suit, and Murphree said he made no money — he just wanted to keep the flag in his flower pot.

He thought the matter was settled until two weeks later, when the HOA drafted new flower pot rules that forbade his tiny flag from being flown. The fine notices started appearing in his mailbox again.

So Murphree filed a second federal lawsuit earlier this year. That was dismissed in March by a U.S. District Court judge who said, among other things, that it was an issue for state courts.

No state lawsuit has yet been filed, and Murphree’s attorney Gust Sarris said they are trying to settle the matter with The Tides out of court before filing.

If he loses his current battle against the HOA and fails to pay his fines or dues, Murphree says he could lose his home. He said he owes about $30,000 related to the challenge.

The Tides has also filed a lien against Murphree’s property for unpaid HOA dues — the money he sent for dues was instead applied by the HOA to his flag fines and legal costs.

Murphree’s neighbors have largely been supportive of his fight, he said, but after visits by television crews and reporters, some wish he would just fly the flag according to the rules.

But Murphree believes he’s fighting for a larger cause.

“This is about my love and respect for the flag,” he said. “There’s people who strap on a gun to protect me and my family … it’s a small flag but a big thank you.”

Reprinted with permission of the Associated Press.