June 6, 2022
Rights and responsibilities regarding renovation of condominium limited common elements (LCE) are a frequent source of legal conflict among unit owners. LCEs can be of practically anything, frequent examples being balconies, patios, porches, or parking areas. The Virginia Condominium Act defines, “Limited common element” as, “a portion of the common elements reserved for the exclusive use of those entitled to the use of one or more, but less than all, of the units.” Contrast LCEs with general common elements, which are also common property, but not designated for exclusive use by anyone. Generally speaking, the unit owner’s association board controls the use, maintenance, and assessment of cost for repair to the common elements, including the LCE. LCEs can be something that the unit owner enjoys as living space, relies upon for the normal use of the unit, or required for access to and from home. When LCEs need to be repaired or replaced, disputes frequently arise regarding the method of renovation of condominium limited common elements and the assessment of costs. It makes sense to handle the cost of maintaining LCEs differently that “general” expenses. The other unit owners do not enjoy or benefit from the LCE. Cost of replacement or renovation of condominium limited common elements can, in some instances, be astronomical. For example, replacing all balconies at the same time can be expensive, but overall, if handled properly, more cost effective and produce more visually uniform results. Many people don’t like having a committee of self-interested non-experts decide when, in what design, and at what cost their balconies or patios will be replaced. Large, unforeseen special assessments for projects mostly benefitting others are a frequent source of conflict. Sometimes unit owners will mount campaigns to get rid the of the board if a special assessment project is objectionable.
When controversies regarding liability for renovations to LCEs arise, affected unit owners want to know what rights they have. Because every condominium property and recorded instrument is different, there are no stock answers to these questions.
Some explainers confusingly analogize LCEs to easements. The Virginia Condominium Act discusses both easements and LCEs and does not equate them. The LCE is a statutory creature that includes easements in favor of the assigned unit, conditioned on certain prerogatives regarding control, renovation and imposition of cost held by the board.
While the board exercises significant control over LCEs, it cannot take them away or reassign them willy-nilly. The designation and assignment of LCEs is difficult to change once established by a land recording. If the board could take a LCE away from one unit owner and give it to another, or create a brand new LCE out of a portion of the general common elements, much mischief could result. Assignment of a LCE generally requires an amendment to the declaration, unless it specifically provides for certain areas pre-identified as assignable LCEs to be allocated by the board in the future. For example, storage units or parking spaces may be treated as LCEs. This sounds obscure. However, sometimes boards will want to give a unit owner a privilege to use a common element in an exclusive way, in a manner not contemplated by the declaration or bylaws.
The Supreme Court of Virginia held that the UOA has exclusive standing to sue to vindicate rights in the common elements, including assigned LCEs. In a given case, one unit owner may not be able to sue another unit owner for misuse of a LCE, because, subject to the statutes and recorded instruments, a unit owner cannot usurp the boards statutory prerogatives.
The units to which a LCE is assigned will usually be required to pay the association a special assessment to cover the cost of the repair or replacement of the LCE. The Condominium Act provides “default” rule:
Except to the extent that the condominium instruments provide otherwise, any expenses associated with the maintenance, repair, restoration, replacement, or renovation of condominium limited common elements shall be specially assessed against the owner of the unit to which that LCE was assigned at the time such expenses were made or incurred.
Of course, if someone caused the damage by their intentional or negligent actions, the culpable party may be held responsible, or insurance may be available. When disputes over renovation of condominium limited common elements arise, it’s important for the affected unit owner to obtain legal advice, especially in instances where the Condo Act, original instruments, or any later amendments conflict with each other regarding the control and cost of an LCE. It may be necessary to research bylaw amendments, condominium plats, and builder’s drawings to be reviewed in light of the contracts and engineering designs for the new renovation project. The text of the condominium instruments may not contain the requisite detail for what is actually proposed to be renovated.
Condominium law distinguishes, “maintenance, repair, renovation, or replacement” from “additions & alterations.” Its easy to understand why a unit purchaser is deemed on-board for the repair or replacement of common elements that fall into disrepair, because they were there originally. Generally speaking, the board cannot alter the unit owner’s maintenance obligations by addition or alteration of a common element, unless the instruments make that a part of the “bargain.”
Sometimes, the declaration or bylaws may be amended by a simple majority or 2/3 of the unit owners. The board may ask their supporters to amend the way the LCEs are managed (in terms of usage) or costed (in terms of liability for renovation). Can a simple or super majority infringe upon the rights of a unit owner by altering their unique property rights, or socking them with costs that substantially benefit others? In other words, are there rights that a unit owner has that can’t be circumscribed by the other unit owners acting in concert? The Virginia Condominium Act requires 100%-unit owner approval to change the following:
- The boundaries of any unit,
- The undivided interest in the common elements,
- The liability for common expenses, or
- The number of votes in the unit owners’ association that appertains to any unit.
Another section (Va. Code § 55.1-1919) requires 100%-unit owner consent, or at least the consent of the affected unit owners, to re-arrange the unit boundaries or limited common elements. There is not much case law defining in what instances changes to the common expense liability will require 100% approval. Its possible that the courts would impose a “reasonableness” standard on review, as they do in certain other community association contexts. After someone buys a unit, the community may experience changes not anticipated by the buyer or contemplated in the bylaws. The scope of matters requiring 100% approval versus some lesser number has not been addressed much by Virginia courts. In other states, the courts require amendments of less than 100% to pass an additional requirement that the governing instruments must provide some sort of fair notice that the subject matter of the amendment is reasonably foreseeable.
Boards change personnel, the structures fall into disrepair (or even collapse) and the character of the property surrounding the condominium project changes. Sometimes condominiums attempt drastic measures to raise funds for repairs to avoid termination, such as selling off a swimming pool area, parking lot or docks to developers to raise funds. These risks raise the fundamental question of how a unit owner may protect herself from interference with the use or large unanticipated cost to LCEs. The statutes and recorded instruments may be clear or confusing, depending on the language. It would ne nice if the owner’s rights and responsibilities with respect to the LCE was intuitive or analogous to other kinds of shared property rights, but its not. LCEs are governed by technicalities reflected in obscure legal texts. People who buy condominium units for affordable, convenient housing want to believe that there are competent, responsible people making sure that things are managed and maintained properly, and that they can take assume that what they see and hear can be taken at face value. However, older condominiums bear all sorts of risks and professional assistance to the buyer is advised.