Rules are Rules: How to Enforce Neighborhood Covenants
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A homeowner in your community makes an exterior modification without checking with the Architectural Review Committee as specified in the governing documents. As a result, the ARC finds that the modification is not approved. The homeowner is notified but ignores the request to fix the issue. Now the board must follow the process of assessing a fine for a covenant violation. Several months later, even after receiving numerous fines from the association, the homeowner still hasn’t taken any action to fix the problem. Most association board members have encountered this type of impasse- the question is how to mitigate these violation situations in a way that fosters alignment rather than division in your community.
As is often the case, education on the topic can short-circuit many violations from ever occurring. While everyone has downloaded software, very few people read the entirety of the terms & conditions statement, choosing to skip straight to the “I agree” button. Similarly, most residents are aware they live in a deed-restricted community but may not have taken the time to fully read through the Covenants, Rules and Restrictions (CCRs). Some may not fully understand what a covenant is, what a covenant violation means, or why they are important. Many homeowners may not realize what issues should be brought to the attention of the board as opposed to the community manager or local emergency services.
Consider partnering with your management company to provide a short resident workshop at least once a quarter to educate your homeowners about covenant restrictions in your neighborhood and the architectural review process for modifications. As a popular television advertisement once stated, “Knowing is half the battle!”
Every rule should have a reason. CCRs are designed to protect the look and feel of a neighborhood; this helps keep the area attractive for current residents as well as maintaining or increasing property values over time (which every homeowner should desire). Board members are responsible for drafting and enforcing covenant policies that are specifically targeted toward these goals. Rulemaking should involve a balance between community needs, resident safety and allowing homeowners to have a reasonable amount of personal freedom.
Take some time to review your community’s governing documents on a regular basis. Make sure that your existing policies are still relevant and updated to meet current state statutes. Consider if a new policy will just result in more problems. For example, it isn’t unusual for associations to establish strict rules in response to a specific incident only to discover new issues and complaints as a direct result of the rule. Think long-term and remember to keep your policymaking decisions as free from bias (political or personal) as possible. Covenants exist not to punish residents, but to prevent future violations.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Does this policy impact the entire community and not simply a single segment of residents?
- Is this policy in alignment with the original restrictions and enforcement procedures envisioned by the developer?
- Is this policy enforceable? Does it violate a resident’s reasonable expectation of personal freedom?
- Will homeowners respond positively or negatively to the policy?
Consistency might be the most critical aspect of covenant enforcement. Typically, animosity generated by enforcing the rules occurs when residents feel as if they are unfairly targeted. Apply the rules equally to everyone, so that homeowners are motivated to comply. A professional management company is a major advantage to your community in this area, as it provides an independent implementation of violations notices as set forth in the governing documents. Working with a professional management company will also ensure that personal information or relationships are not being considered in the violation process. Both board members and community managers alike should remain neutral, making sure to inspect all homes in the community equally. It might be easy to log more covenant violations near the entrance to the property than in the further reaches and cul-de-sacs, but a good management company will routinely drive or walk the entire property to ensure fair and honest evaluations.
It is also important to be familiar with all the covenant restrictions for the community before an inspection occurs. No restriction should be more important or more targeted than another. While weeds, parking, visible trashcans or pet waste may be more frequent, lesser known violations regarding specific landscaping rules, house decorations, satellite antenna regulations or yard signage also need to be addressed.
Residents who commit violations should receive a written notice that includes a description of the penalties. Each should be entitled to a chance to respond according to your association’s established violation process. Remember, homeowners may opt to contact legal counsel if they believe the board has treated them unfairly.
At the end of the day, some residents will remain dissatisfied. Think about utilizing these homeowners to drive community participation in your association. Encourage them to get involved on the board, or join committees involved in plicy review, architectural control, or enforcement. Giving these individuals a chance to have their opinions voiced while letting them experience all the planning and work involved in covenant enforcement can help them understand that the role and responsibility of the board is to develop policies that utlimately benefit the entire community.
As a board member, you care enough about your community to actively volunteer your time in its service. Implementing well-planned, unbiased rules and regulation while enforcing a consistent violations procedure will allow you to spend more time enjoying your community rather than interacting with upset hoemowners and repeat offenders. To find out how a professional management company like FirstService Residential is equipped to adminster effective covenant enforcement, contact us at an office location near you.