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Rules Are Made To Be …Changed?

According to a Community Associations Institute survey, residents of community associations appreciate the benefits that the rules that govern community associations provide. In fact, for the past 10 years, the survey data has been consistent. It indicates that more than three quarters of homeowners believe their community rules protect and enhance their property values with only three percent saying the opposite.

It is ironic then that rule enforcement is typically one of the most contentious issue facing community associations. When emerging trends like solar energy, gardens, emotional support animals and even clothes lines clash with existing rules. The result is typically bad publicity for the association or legislation overriding the community’s autonomy.

There are a variety of reasons for this. First, community association living obligates homeowners to comply with rules. This is fairly recent phenomena. In exchange for providing consistency in how property is used, rules ensure that the investment in one’s home is protected. Resident’s don’t have to worry about cars on blocks in the front yards, unsightly landscaping or other actions that detract from the aesthetic appeal of the community. But such rules apply to a resident’s home, and as the saying goes, “My home is my castle” which creates friction with residents. And let’s not forget the other adage that rules are made to be broken.

Another reason is that community values change over time. Thirty years ago homebuyers wanted consistent looking communities after moving from chaotic cities to suburbs. So builders responded to the market and created rules that reflected buyers’ preferences. It is hard to believe today, but things like gardens, solar panels and clotheslines were considered either anachronistic or somewhat odd. As a result, community covenants, conditions and restrictions prohibited such installations. Today, there is a desire by buyers for installing gardens, using clotheslines and installing solar panels. Too often though such things remain prohibited by rules or covenants drafted nearly a generation ago.

Finally, where the restrictions are in the community’s governing documents can dictate how difficult the rule is to change. During the early years of community associations, developers recorded many limitations on the use of property in the deed restrictions that attach to the land, which make rule changes extremely difficult. Most states require a super majority of property owners to vote to change a deed restriction. Changing restrictions in the deed or covenants is on par with trying to amend the U.S. Constitution. Rules can also be adopted by a simple majority of the membership or a vote of the board. In these instances it is easy to adjust rules to meet changing community needs. The bottom line is that boards and residents need to understand that they can work through the community association’s governance process to make changes.

A good way to get ahead of emerging rule enforcement issues is for boards to work with residents to review existing rules, identify areas that may need adjustment and examine processes need to adapt rules to meet the changing needs of the community. Boards that keep a finger on the pulse of their community’s needs, can reap dividends by meeting resident’s changing expectations.

Andrew S. Fortin
Senior Vice President, External Affairs