Dirt lawyers hear stories of dysfunctional homeowners’ associations routinely. I have one for you!
My husband and I built a second home at the beach in a relatively modest subdivision in 2011. Many of the houses are owner occupied, but many are on rental plans. My twenty-something daughter met a neighbor who asked her two questions, (1) “Is this your family’s first vacation home?” and (2) Your parents aren’t going to rent this house, are they?” It wasn’t a good start to our relationship.
We had several issues with ARB approvals during the building process, which were handled by our builder. At one point, he threw his hands in the air in frustration and said, “These people need to understand this isn’t DeBordieu.” In other words, the ARB seemed to believe the subdivision is much more affluent than it is.
When we attended our first (and only as it turns out) annual meeting of the owners, the president of the board promptly threw one of our neighbors out of the meeting for asking a question! It was during the first five minutes of the meeting. We were shocked and vowed to steer clear of those meetings.
During our first winter, we received a very nasty letter telling us we had a dead tree that must be removed immediately. We were in Columbia, didn’t know about the dead tree, and even when we investigated, we decided the tree didn’t look any worse than the other winter trees. But we quickly took it down! We heard another neighbor received a similar letter telling him his mailbox was dirty and needed to be cleaned immediately.
We decided that we were going to be good neighbors and properly maintain our house and yard, but we would enjoy the beach and the gatherings of our growing family (including the four grandchildren we’ve been blessed with since we built the house) without getting involved with the neighbors.
Believe it or not, this story has a happy ending. Apparently, all the problems were caused by one homeowner who managed to get herself elected to the board and the ARB. She roamed the streets looking for rules violations and wrote the letters herself. About the time we figured out the problem, she and her husband, thankfully, moved. The trouble among the neighbors immediately improved. Now, we have delightful neighborhood parties and enjoy getting to know our neighbors. And it seems everyone has a story about the bad neighbor. We stand around drinking beer and telling stories.
My guess is that our earlier bad HOA is like the one described in Buckholder v. Palisades Park Owners Ass’n, Inc.*, a Virginia case where the HOA imposed an assessment on all owners to fund the cost of inspecting each property for the purpose of finding violations of the HOA rules. Homeowners sued to have the assessment declared invalid.
Virginia has a statute that provides, “(e)xcept as expressly authorized by the Act, the declaration or as otherwise provided by law, no association shall…make an assessment or impose a charge against a lot owner unless the charge is a fee for services provided or related to use of the common area.”
The court invalided the assessment and remanded the case to the lower court.
I read about this interesting case on the DIRT listserv that I recommend routinely. You won’t be sorry if you sign up for the emails!
Professor Dale Whitman who moderates the listserv commented that this is the sort of thing that gives HOAs a bad name. He also commented, “While most states won’t have a statute exactly like Virginia’s, the lesson of the case remains applicable. If an HOA or condo board is going to impose an assessment to be used on anything other than the common areas (or reserves that will ultimately benefit the common areas), it needs to be certain that it has the legal power to do so, either by virtue of an applicable statute or its own declaration. This is particularly true if the assessment is almost certain to irritate and raise the hackles of some owners, as this one was.”
Several lawyers commented about the nature of folks who like to serve on HOA boards. Read the comments if you need a good laugh. The listserv is searchable.
I think I’ll share the case with my neighbors at the beach.
*76 Va. App. 577, 882 S.E.2d 906 (2023)