May 31, 2016
Liberty University Suing Neighbors Over Unwanted Lake
Lynchburg got in the news lately on account of Liberty University suing neighbors over unwanted lake. People know about Liberty University (“LU”) from the political-incorrectness of its leaders, especially Jerry Falwell, Sr. Long before Donald Trump captured the headlines with controversial statements, Mr. Falwell had a comparable relationship with the news media. Liberty brands itself as a conservative Christian University. Until recently, I had no idea how intermeshed Liberty is in Lynchburg, Virginia. For example, in March 2016, Liberty purchased a 75% interest in the River Ridge Mall for $33.5 million dollars. This mall is across the street from LU. According to ABC13 WSET, Liberty will allow the property managers to operate the mall without much regard for the political or religious viewpoints of the University. R-rated movies will be shown. Victoria’s Secret will remain open. President Falwell, Jr. explained that the University purchased the controlling interest in the mall to diversify its investment portfolio.
River Ridge Mall is not the only local off-campus real estate owned by LU. Many years ago, a Real Estate Investment Trust donated Ivy Lake to Liberty University. Ivy Lake is the centerpiece of a residential development 10 miles from the LU campus. Ivy Hill Recreation, LLC (“IHR”), a LU subsidiary holding company and the homeowners around the lake are in an intractable dispute over maintenance of the lake’s dam and the road that runs over it. In April, 2016, IHR brought a lawsuit against more than 400 landowners, seeking contribution towards necessary repairs to the dam and the roadway. This case tests the institutional values of LU regarding respect for property rights and neighborly obligations. The case also illustrates risks to landowners when the duties to maintain and repair roads and bridges in a community are not very well-defined. Most suburban properties without direct access to public right of ways have recorded HOA covenants that refer to roads as commons areas. When considering purchase of properties in a HOA, potential buyers certainly should carefully review and consider the HOA disclosure documents. As this lawsuit shows, sometimes home buyers should be equally skeptical about the absence of restrictive covenants when there are “common areas” that require maintenance.
This case captured my attention because I grew up a mile from a man-made lake in rural Virginia. While the lake and adjoining park are owned by the local government, some of our neighbors had lakefront properties. My brothers and I used to walk to the lake during the winter and sled down the side of the dam. One winter, someone built a sledding ramp near the bottom of the dam for cheap, risky thrills. In the summer, I would run up the side of the dam for an intense workout. Perhaps IHR could offer rights to use a beach area on the lake as an incentive to maintain the dam?
According to the lawsuit, the developer constructed a dam across ivy creek in order to create Lake Ivy. The lake adds scenic and recreational value to adjoining owners. The developer built a road across the dam. Some of the homes around the lake are only accessible by the road across the dam. The lakefront owners have easements to use the lake for recreational purposes. What is unusual here is that the lake, dam and road are not owned by the county or by an HOA. The developer donated the Lake to Liberty University, subject to the easements of the homeowners. Liberty faculty, students and staff rarely use the lake. A few years ago the Commonwealth of Virginia determined that per statute, the dam required extensive repairs, particularly the spillway and the road over the dam. If the spillway and road are not repaired, they must be closed to mitigate risks of failure. The repairs will cost approximately $1 million dollars. The state ordered IHR to comply with the safety requirements. Because of all of this, Liberty is no longer interested in owning the lake property. If they can’t get the owners to assume ownership of the property, they at least want them to contribute to the repairs.
This dispute is complicated by the fact that some defendant owners have lakefront acreage and don’t use the dam road, some rely upon the road over the dam (with no lakefront), and some are on the water and rely upon the dam road for access.
The neighborhoods surrounding the lake are not without any restrictive covenants. While they don’t all appear to be an HOA, most of them are subject to a declaration of agreements that restricts development to residential use, sets up an architectural committee, prohibits commercial uses, limits unsightly outbuildings, and other restrictions.
The gravamen of LU’s demands to the homeowners is not unreasonable. If the owners want to continue to enjoy access to their properties, someone needs to maintain the dam road. If the waterfront owners want to continue to enjoy the lake, someone needs to support the repairs to the spillway. Many landowners willingly signed documentation that would require them to make pro-rata contributions to the repairs. LU would prefer to have the owners form a HOA with the lake property as a common area. The lawsuit doesn’t request that the owners be forced into a formal HOA. Judges have discretion to craft solutions to easement disputes. However, they cannot decree creation of an HOA. HOAs must be set up by the developer beforehand, because rarely will owners unanimously consent to one. Enough oppose the efforts to require filing of the lawsuit. LU’s decision to file the lawsuit is more reasonable than unilaterally draining the lake and eliminating the dam without an effort to resolve the dispute. Without the lake, the owners will lose a perk. Without the roadway, their properties become useless because of lack of access.
The lawsuit suggests that the legal and practical aspects of all of this has been apparent for many years. Any potential buyer could research land records and determine that if the dam road required repairs, someone would have to pay for it. Also, the developer who built the lake apparently did it on the cheap. The lawsuit alleges that, “The work necessary to armor or harden the spillway was contemplated when the dam was originally conducted, however it apparently was not completed, and it must be done now as a condition of maintaining the dam.”
What is LU asking the Court to do for them? The lawsuit contains five claims:
Count 1: Duty to Maintain Easement (both the lake and the required repairs)
Count 2: Contribution (to IHR towards Required Repairs and other related issues)
Count 3: Right to Assess a Fee (for use of the lake, consistent with the right to makes rules & regulations)
Count 4: Negative Reciprocal Easement (lake development parcels have similar restrictions, most have express easements for recreational use of lake subject to rules and regulations, because they have easements for use, they should be bound by the rules and regulations, and also should be bound to contribute to the required repairs)
Count 5: Otherwise, owners must (1) personally make the repairs or (2) suffer the consequences of an abandoned easement.
In my opinion, IHR is overreaching somewhat in this lawsuit. I doubt that the judge would enter an order that would create a quasi-HOA relationship between the parties absent a unanimous agreement. The lawsuit burdens the owners with having to defend the case. It forces them to take a position, either participate in the maintenance and repairs or abandone their interest in the road, dam and lake. I would be very surprised if the judge would do more than deciding that the LU subsidiary is entitled to financial contribution for the minimum amount of repairs to maintain the easements.
Regardless of its outcome, this case has lessons learned for prospective property owners. Buyers should not assume that the developer will record covenants that will adequately address common area maintenance. If a developer wants to give away a property like a man-made lake that is unfinished and requires maintenance, then an institution like a University should consider the implications before accepting the gift. Hopefully these parties can resolve this dispute and avoid endless litigation and/or removal of the dam. Ivy Lake could remain a blessing, and not become a curse.
photo credit: The James River from the Old N & W Railroad Bridge via photopin (license)(does not depict creek or lake in article)
May 17, 2016
Can a HOA Represent Individual Landowners in Court without Their Permission?
Can a HOA Represent Individual Landowners in Court without Their Permission? What gives an HOA or Condo Association standing to sue to address threats coming from outside the community, or to appeal administrative decisions by the government that affect the neighborhood? On April 22, 2016, the Circuit Court of Loudoun County issued an opinion that explains how an HOA’s power to represent its owners in the outside world is actually quite narrow. This case is important to anyone interested in the overreach of HOA powers. In matters involving real estate, the HOA only owns the common areas and easements granted in the covenants recorded in the land records. For an HOA to represent the interests of an individual owner’s property in court, specific authorization is required.
The Grenata Homeowners Association and the Evergreen SportsPlex are neighbors. Grenata is a 61 lot community in Leesburg, Virginia. Like many sports complexes, Evergreen SportsPlex uses powerful lighting to make its ballfields usable at night. In many places, sports complex lights are intense enough that passengers taking off or landing can see games in play from airplanes from a high altitude at night. Many people in Grenata find the glare from the Evergreen SportsPlex a nuisance. Personally, I dislike having streetlight glare come into my bedroom or hotel room at night. Loudoun County has a light ordinance that does not require residents to do this where the light problem reaches a certain point. I can understand why those owners brought complaints before Loudoun County, alleging that Evergreen SportsPlex violated the local light ordinance. (Pop star Cory Hart’s 1984 hit song, “Sun Glasses at Night” is the musical inspiration for this blog post) The zoning administrator issued a notice of violation. Evergreen SportsPlex appealed and the Board of Zoning Appeals reversed the decision, finding that the Evergreen SportsPlex lighting was compliant. The HOA and some of the individual owners appealed this adverse decision to the Circuit Court. The April 22, 2016 opinion of Judge Douglas Fleming rules on the County’s efforts to get the appeal dismissed without further litigation.
Much of Judge Fleming’s opinion addresses technical questions about whether the HOA or individual owners were effectively notified of the Board of Zoning Appeal’s decision and thus waived any right to appeal. The case also presents questions about Grenata HOA’s standing to appeal the Board of Zoning Appeal’s adverse decision on behalf of itself and its individual owners. Has Grenata rightfully interjected itself in this case if it is the individual owners who are impacted by the intense glare? There may be owners in the HOA who are not damaged by the SportsPlex lighting and would not stand to benefit from this litigation. The Court addressed Grenata’s claims of standing both as a property owner and as an owner representative:
HOA as a Representative Agent of Individual Homeowners:
Grenata HOA claimed to be an authorized representative agent of individual homeowners affected by this Board of Zoning Appeals decision. There are provisions in the covenants that authorized the HOA to bring lawsuits that the board deemed necessary. The Board of Directors made a written resolution specifically authorizing the appeal to be filed. The opinion does not discuss any provisions in the covenants that would specifically authorize the HOA to litigate on behalf of individual owners’ interests.
If Grenata succeeds on appeal, the owners living closer to the SportsPlex would benefit more than the ones living further away. All owners would be paying for this out of their assessments.
There is no provision of the Property Owners Association Act that specifically authorizes HOAs to appeal adverse land use decisions on behalf of individual “constituent” owners.
The Court found that there was no record in the Board of Zoning Appeal case that individual affected homeowners ever expressly authorized the HOA to pursue this appellate litigation on their behalf. However, since Grenata alleged in their appeal that there was, the Court viewed this as a factual dispute that would have to be resolved later on in the case.
The Court is making a subtle point about the limits of HOA powers. Just because a HOA Board of Directors decides that they want to pursue an appeal of a land use decision on behalf of several of their constituent owners doesn’t mean that they have the authority to do so. Only those individual landowners have standing to pursue the litigation unless they expressly authorized their HOA to do this. The language in the covenants is critical to assessing these authorization issues. The covenants could prohibit such actions by the board, with or without owner’s authorization, or they could provide specific circumstances where the HOA could do something like this without individual owner authorization. The analysis applied by the court appears to be in a situation where the covenants are silent on the issue.
In these types of cases it is usually best for the affected owners to retain their own counsel (either separate or joint representation, as appropriate) and explore these matters without involving the HOA. If an individual owner signs an authorization for the HOA to proceed, and the HOA Board is motivated to proceed, then the owner runs the risk that the HOA Board will pursue things in a manner in the interests of certain officers, the majority of HOA directors or owners. This could result in an outcome that might not be in the best interest of the affected owner. Also, many owners may be suspicious if the Board pursues legal action that is paid for by all owners but disproportionately benefits certain owners, who may be connected with board members. The case opinion does not delve into these internal HOA governance issues, so I don’t know if they come into play here.
HOA as an Impacted Property Owner:
Grenata HOA owned a few parcels of land approximately 480 feet from the SportsPlex, including a water supply and undevelopable “out-lots.” Grenata argued it had standing because it owned these nearby properties. The Supreme Court of Virginia has a test as to whether a neighbor has standing to challenge a land use decision:
- The neighbor must own or occupy property within close proximity to the property at issue (here the SportsPlex), thus establishing a direct, immediate, pecuniary and substantial interest in the decision.
- And they must demonstrate a particularized harm to some personal or property right, or a burden different from that suffered by the general public.
The County unsuccessfully argued that these common areas did not adjoin the SportsPlex and thus were not in close proximity. The court found that 480 feet was close enough to allow the appeal process to proceed. On argument the County pointed out that these common areas were undevelopable and thus of little or no market value. The Court determined that such value was not relevant to this determination. The court determined that the HOA had standing to pursue the appeal on the grounds because it sufficiently alleged that it was a proximate owner alleging a particularized harm not suffered by the general public.
A cheeky argument that lawyers for Evergreen Sportsplex or the County could make, but isn’t discussed in the opinion is that the SportsPlex lights actually confer a benefit on the HOA in its administration of the common areas. HOA’s have an obligation to their residents and guests to keep common areas well-lit if necessary to promote safety. If there is an area where storm runoff accumulates, or parking lots or perhaps some roads, it may benefit the community to have electric bills for lighting paid by Evergreen.
The Grenata case is far from over. The Circuit Court may ultimately dismiss the appeals of the HOA, individual owners or both. In Virginia, the factual determinations of the Board of Zoning Appeals are presumed to be correct by the Court unless a party successfully rebuts the presumption. The burden rests on the HOA and owners to show that the Board of Zoning Appeals made an incorrect determination.
Case Citation: Grenata Homeowners Association, et al. v. Bd. of Superv. of Loudoun Co. & EVG Land, LLC (Loudoun Co. Cir. Ct. April 22, 2016)(behind subscription paywall)
Photo Credit: Flood lights via photopin (license)