A corner cafe specializing in frozen desserts would seem like the perfect setting to relax and cool off, but the proprietors of Mountain View's SnoZen have found themselves in the center of a heated political battle between residents in the Crossings neighborhood.
SnoZen, which opened in late 2013, serves Taiwanese shaved snow, a unique dessert that has attracted a following in the Bay Area. But along with its success, the business has also drawn some complaints from neighbors that they're being too noisy.
SnoZen owners Teague and Jennypher Ho, as well as other residents in the Crossings neighborhood, say the complaints come solely from the one household living directly above the shop. Over the 18 months since SnoZen opened, residents Konstantin Okunev and his wife Yelena Okuneva have made an estimated seven complaints about the noise to Mountain View police and code-enforcement officials. When authorities found no substantial issues, the Okunev family hired an attorney, who began sending written warnings to SnoZen to be quiet.
The Ho family say the noise complaints make little sense. Other than the chatter of customers, the only other sound coming from the shop is a radio with only one speaker working that they couldn't blast if they wanted to, they say. They point out these complaints are particularly odd due to the building's location -- right next to the Caltrain tracks -- where roaring trains drown out all sounds as they pass by.
"It's totally subjective what 'quiet' is to each person," Jennypher Ho said. "We've tried every way to appease them and meet their demands, but we just feel like we were pushed into a corner and there was no way to make them happy anymore."
Meanwhile, the Okunev family describes the throbbing stereo beats coming from SnoZen as being like something straight out of Edgar Allen Poe's story "The Tell-Tale Heart." The noise has been an ongoing nuisance that has impacted their right to relax at home, said Konstantin Okunev, pointing out their daughter had to change bedrooms just to sleep.
"The building is constructed in such a way that if you turn on music, the whole building vibrates," he said. "Let's say you come home around 7 p.m., and you can't relax because you just keep hearing this beat, and it's been like that for months."
For more than a year, this situation seemed like just another stalemate between neighbors who could never get along. But things changed in recent months when Yelena Okuneva joined the board of the Crossings Homeowners' Association, and the organization suddenly began taking a strong interest in the issue. The homeowners' group represents about 230 residences in the mixed-use neighborhood just north of the San Antonio shopping center, and it governs the insular rules for the private community for things like landscaping, street parking and renting out the pool.
Under a set of newly amended rules the homeowners' group approved in February, all businesses in Crossings would be forced to abide by "quiet hours" after 6 p.m. each day. In effect, that rule only affects SnoZen since the only other nearby shop, a salon, closes each day before the rules take effect.
For their part, SnoZen owners Teague and Jennypher Ho say they rules if implemented would effectively force them to close up early each day. What's more, if they lost their peak business hours in the evenings, they see little alternative but to close down the shop for good.
But the shaved-snow shop is really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the infighting in the Crossings neighborhood. A group dubbing itself the "Crossings Resistance," has rallied behind SnoZen, turning the shop into a larger symbol for other alleged injustices spearheaded by the homeowners association. The group recently mounted a banner above the SnoZen entrance, urging people to visit a website laying out their grievances against the association.
One vocal critic has been Charles Bransi, a software engineer living at the Crossings who previously took the homeowners group to small-claims court over how it nominated new members to the board. He blames the association for crossing the line by making unnecessary revisions to the governing rules, and then enforcing those rules in a hard-line fashion. As example, Bransi pointed out that people began getting their cars towed or fined for parking alongside red curbs -- before they would first get a warning from private security patrols. Similarly, he pointed to an incident last month when the board confiscated a family's security deposit and banned them for a year from using the community facilities after they rented out a clubhouse for their daughter's birthday party and some children started swimming in the adjacent pool.
"People aren't happy with the management if they keep doing these things like this," Bransi said. "There's a way to do things through negotiation … but through this approach, they keep making enemies every day."
For their part, association board members say they're only enforcing the rules, most of which have been around for decades. Just as many people are urging the Crossings association to penalize those who violate the rules as there are people complaining about it, said board president Paul Simons de Carvalho. He acknowledged that about 50 cars were towed in the neighborhood over a period of about six months, but he said that by enforcing those rules the red curbs were totally clear when a fire occurred in March.
"When people buy homes here they sign an agreement with rules, and then some don't abide with it," he said. "This whole thing is you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. You can't please everyone. Some people want the rules enforced, some don't."
But the disputes at Crossings are also fast becoming a matter for the courts. In March, the association board launched a civil lawsuit against its former property management company as well as five Crossings residents who formerly served as board members. The suit sought $450,000 from the defendants for allegedly mismanaging the HOA's finances and failing to follow the organization's governing documents for board meetings. Attorneys working for the board indicated that seeing the lawsuit to fruition would cost about $150,000 in legal fees.
Seeking a second opinion, a group of homeowners hired a competing law firm to analyze the merits of the case. Among the attorney's findings, it cast doubt on the suit, suggesting the board itself had violated protocol by initiating litigation without properly notifying members. For that matter, the case had a uncertain shot at winning and would likely cost well in excess of $150,000 before it came to a trial, he warned.
In fact, the political battle will even soon have its own neighborhood election. Bransi and other residents gathered enough signatures on a petition to potentially veto the amended rules passed by the association board in February. In early June, the votes of 230-plus households will be counted to determine whether those rules should be overturned. In recent days, SnoZen hosted a meeting of about 40 people seeking to rally support for the veto.
Carvalho acknowledged there were an active corps of opponents trying to undermine the board, but he said that group was really only a handful of people. A better way to change the neighborhood's policy, he said, would be for people to write letters and participate without resorting to "nastiness."
In fact, one of the few things the two feuding sides in the dispute seem to agree on is that most people at Crossings neighborhood seem blissfully ignorant of the strife.
"The neighborhood actually isn't that divided," Bransi said. "The majority of people here don't even know what's going on."