November 20, 2023
Many homeowners experience frustration with their community associations when they sense they are going around in circles. For example, they receive notice that something must be applied for or removed because of the architectural guidelines. The homeowner determines that it is not a violation, and board members agree in a conversation. Later, the homeowner receives another notice from the HOA, again asking for the same “violation” to be corrected. Architectural disputes with HOAs go beyond mere “aesthetic” issues such as statuary, plant pots or flag displays. Most architectural applications involve major financial commitments. The architectural control committee has substantial power over the property and lives of the residents. Understanding the limits of those powers can help owners exercise greater control over their own lives.
Recorded covenants and architectural guidelines contain detailed standards and procedures that can be difficult to interpret. Often, the declaration of covenants limits the time the committee or board may take to consider an architectural application, usually 30 or 45 days. Deadlines, if properly contrived, can allow for property-related disputes to be timely resolved. What happens when a HOA fails to timely approve or deny an architectural application? Such rules say that if the HOA does not deny the application within the time allotted, it is deemed approved. Such deadlines prevent associations from desk-drawering (“sitting on”) an application to prevent it from being approved.
Not all HOAs or condominiums have such provisions in their documents. No Virginia statute imposes a 30- or 45-day limit where it is not expressed in the instruments. Without such provisions, the parties look to the doctrines of waiver or estoppel to determine if the association abandoned their right to deny. When things drag out, the homeowner and the committee often disagree as to whether the passage of time barred a denial of a particular application. For example, what if the association responds to an application with a request for additional information, or announces that a hearing will convene only a few days outside of the allotted 45? Is the 30 day or 45-day time limit more flexible than its language would suggest?
The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland (now called the Court of Appeals of Maryland) considered such a case, Raj Yadav vs. Pindell Woods Homeowners Association, Inc., in a December 26, 2017 opinion. Howard County residents, Rita and Raj Yadav planted a row of trees along their property line to enhance privacy screening between their “street front” lot and a “flag lot” behind theirs, owned by the Olaniran family. “Pipestem” driveways connecting flag lots to the right-of-way allow developers to add more lots into a subdivision. Lots using or burdened by driveway easements tend to have more legal disputes than ordinary lots. https://cowherdplc.com/problems-with-pipestems/ The Yadavs wanted to screen a line of sight between their house and the Olaniran’s driveway. The Olanirans complained about the trees. On April 28, 2014, the Yadavs applied for approval of the trees. The HOA asked the Yadavs to resubmit their application, which they did in May 2014. The HOA denied their applications. The Yadavs removed two trees and submitted a third application for the thirteen remaining trees. After the Yadavs refused to remove all but seven trees, the HOA denied the application. The HOA said that when the trees matured, they would block motorists’ sight lines. In court, the Yadavs argued that the covenants did not allow the HOA to prohibit them from planting trees wheresoever on their property. They argued that even if the HOA may regulate trees, it erroneously determined that the trees constituted a hazard. A sentence in the covenants read, “No trees or shrubs shall be located on any lot which block the view of operators of motor vehicles so as to create a traffic hazard.” Not all recorded covenants give the HOA design-control power over plants on owners’ lots. Maryland courts defer to internal decisions of organizations by applying the business judgment rule (BJR). In Maryland, exceptions to the BJR concern (1) whether the board’s decision was one they were authorized to make, i.e., “ultra vires” action, or were the result of (2) fraud or (3) bad faith. In evaluating a HOA dispute, one must first determine if the board has the authority to make a particular decision at all. Ultra vires is an important doctrine for homeowners. The Court of Appeals ruled that the BJR applied to Pindell Woods HOA’s tree decisions. In Virginia, there is another approach, that of reasonableness, which sometimes presents an intermediate standard between the strict ultra vires and deferential BJR. In my opinion, the BJR is not appropriate for design control powers of parcels of land not owned by the Association, unless it is a condominium, or the recorded instruments expressly adopt the BJR. Control over another person’s land is not properly within the “internal” functions of a corporation; it looks outward to the affairs of its members. In the Yadav case, the HOA did not determine that the trees currently presented a traffic hazard. They concluded that if the trees grew, eventually they would obstruct a line of sight. The court opinion does not discuss if this could be resolved by a condition to keep the trees trimmed. Pindell Woods’ covenants said that any application not decided by the Architectural Committee within 30 days is deemed approved:
Unless the architectural committee, by written notice to the applicant, disapproves any plans submitted or approves them only upon the satisfaction of any specified condition, as aforesaid, within thirty (30) days after such … plans are submitted the architectural committee shall conclusively be deemed for all purposes of this Declaration to have approved such plans unconditionally for each lot for which they were so submitted.
The Yadavs called for this provision to be applied by its plain meaning. The HOA wanted it to be viewed flexibly, to accommodate negotiations between the homeowner and the committee. The declaration was silent as to whether the 30-day “clock” could be paused or restarted. The Court of Appeals concluded that because the committee has the power to condition its approval, that shows a general purpose to, “create a cooperative, interactive process by which the Architectural Committee and the application negotiate a mutually acceptable resolution.” The Court of Appeals ruled that the HOA had the power to pause and restart the 30-day clock when it is trying to resolve matters cooperatively. To require the HOA to deny all applications that it is not yet prepared to accept to prevent itself from forfeiting its design-control powers would have the adverse effect of homeowners receiving mysterious denials where re-application on different terms is suggested or implicit. If the homeowner submits a clarification within 30 days, does that re-start the clock or have no significance for the question of waiver?
The Yadavs’ and Pendell Woods HOA’s negotiations continued from April to December 2014 regarding trees that had already been planted. The Yadavs did not rely upon silence to add trees. The Court of Appeals ruled that the HOA’s request for supplemental information “operated to pause the 30-day clock.” The HOA’s later denial of the application was not erroneous.
The court’s Yadav ruling reflects a desire for the HOA and homeowner to work out the details of architectural applications in earnest. Yet, the approach adopted gives the HOA leverage in such negotiations. A homeowner may find herself trapped in a salad of notices and applications. The Yadav decision assumes that HOAs will “pause” the 30- or 45-day clocks with requests or demands for additional information in a thoughtful way that does not render the deadline meaningless. The court also affirmed the award of attorney’s fees in favor of the HOA and against the Yadavs.
Contrast the Yadav outcome with the Circuit Court of Fairfax County’s approach in a 2007 unpublished decision by Judge Jonathan Thatcher. South Run Regency HOA sued Catherine K. Crosby, seeking removal of a fence she erected on her property. The declaration stated that, “all applications not acted upon within forty-five (45) days shall be deemed approved.” The architectural standards and guidelines provided that, “any time the ARB requires additional information for proper evaluation of an application, the application shall be disapproved and returned requesting more specific information.” After erecting the fence, Ms. Crosby applied on August 25, 2005 for the ARB to retroactively approve it. On September 12, 2005, the ARB sent Ms. Crosby a letter stating that the ARB needed additional information to consider the application. This letter did not deny the application, nor did it return it to her. Ms. Crosby did not respond to this letter. On October 11, 2005, the ARB voted to disapprove the application. This fell outside the 45-day time limit. Judge Thatcher found that the instruments unambiguously required the ARB to deny or return the application if additional information was required. The court entered an order in Ms. Crosby’s favor, deeming the application approved by the passage of the 45 days.
These two courts took different approaches on similar (but not identical) situations. Virginia and Maryland courts tend to apply different standards and points of emphasis in HOA architectural control matters. When a homeowner applies to her HOA for architectural approval, she ought to give careful attention to the wording of the declaration of covenants, bylaws, and the architectural guidelines.
In Virginia, there are provisions in the Property Owners Association Act and the Condominium Act that require boards and committees to conduct business in properly noticed, open meetings. Boards and committees cannot conduct business in unnoticed meetings or “work sessions.” For the board or committee to make a binding business decision on an owner’s architectural application, the vote must comport with the open meeting statutes. This means that some HOA denials of architectural decisions may be void on account of the informality by which they were made.
If a homeowner believes that the HOA is barred from denying an application because of the passage of time, it is best to consult with qualified legal counsel before embarking on a project pursuant to that applied for design, particularly where the cost to later change things could involve financial waste. Many architectural control matters involve a major addition to the house, construction of retaining walls, a swimming pool, or other expensive commitments. There are things that homeowners can do to prevent their association from leading them around in circles or allowing them to remain trapped in “limbo” where a NOV ought to be removed or an application ought to be treated as approved. The homeowner’s right to have the 30- or 45-day “clock” can easily be waived in the course of negotiations. It’s not always best to proceed with a project in the face of uncertainly, particularly if the application is incomplete or inadequately describes what is desired.
For Further Reading:
South Run Regency v. Crosby, No. CL-2006-1582, 2007 Va. Cir. Lexis 156 (Fairfax Co. 2007).
November 6, 2023
Work Group Report to Virginia Legislature Regarding Funding Reserves to Maintain Structural Components in Condominiums
Tomorrow, November 7, 2023, Virginians go to the polls to vote for all seats in the House and Senate. The 2024 session is expected to include legislative deliberation regarding the safety and affordability of aging housing stock, including condominiums. Developers and policymakers view condominiums as growing the tax base of the community while allowing for affordable housing. However, realities of condominiums present threats to unit owners, such as surprise assessments of $10,000-$45,0000, stalking neighbors, constricting rental policies, damage from leaking pipes, or even loss of one’s investment in deconversion. For owners of older condominium units with inadequate reserves and dysfunctional polity, sometimes it is best to sell the unit before the burdens become too great. However, for many unit owners, there are few housing options in their metropolitan region that they can afford. Many homeowners simply must find a way to make their current housing investment work for them.
On November 23, 2022, I posted an article to this blog, “Virginia Structural Integrity and Reserves Work Group,” concerning efforts to reform community association laws in Virginia. The 2022 General Assembly directed the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR) to appoint a panel of industry experts to develop recommendations for how state laws may be strengthened so that community associations can adequately fund projects necessary to renovate structural components and critical building systems. I was not a member of this work group, but I did attend one of their meetings as a public citizen. The legislature and the work group both understand that many, if not most, community associations do not have sufficient reserves to fund renovations essential to intended use, health, and safety. In April 2023, this work group published a lengthy report. I expect we will see a flurry of bills in the legislative session that convenes on January 10, 2024. For condominium unit owners, this two-month legislative session may result in a sea change that splashes waves throughout urban habitats in the Commonwealth. Failure to address such matters can lead to buildings losing insurance coverage, the inability of purchasers to obtain conventional financing, or even condemnation. If mishandled, unit owners can experience tremendous financial hardship with little guarantee that the renovation will succeed.
The industry of property managers, board attorneys, accountants, contractors, landscapers, and other businesses exert more influence over HOA policymaking than the homeowners do. Advisors and vendors to condominiums do not want boards to continue to defer maintenance until something catastrophic happens. If the advisors must tell the boards to do something difficult, they want to present it as necessary and feasible. Boards can replace the professionals with others if they do not like the service they receive. When a structural collapse or personal injury happens, the victims and unit owners often point fingers at the board and their advisors. The work group wants to facilitate reserve studies, collect assessments faster, and make contracts to replace critical components. The governing documents of common interest communities contemplate homeowners electing worthy candidates to the board to wisely fulfill legal responsibilities for the whole community. However, directors tend to make collective decisions according to their personal views, with a bias towards short-term solutions, or without doing their homework. If all the policies the work group wants are implemented, unit owners will have less control over the governance of their communities, while shouldering onerous financial obligations. Let us take a closer look at a few of the work group’s recommendations.
Use of Reserve Study Professionals: Virginia law requires associations to renew their reserve studies every five years. The work group wants to strengthen this with amendments requiring the study to be done by qualified professionals. Reserve studies evaluate the remaining life of various aspects of the common elements, and how much money ought to be set aside. This is not an easy task, because we are talking about millions of dollars. Reserve studies do not include a business plan for fundraising or bid-solicitation. The work group wants to prevent boards from doing the studies themselves, asking a committee of homeowners to do it, or relying on an estimator who is working for a contractor who wants the work. The firms that specialize in reserve studies often have professional relationships with the managers and attorneys who work closely with the boards. Even if the association purchases a professional reserve study, it may not provide all answers that are needed for the board to make decisions. With a statutory mandate to raise assessments and spend on critical components, according to the reserve study, the work group wants to keep the boards listening to the industry experts. However, boards can replace professionals with those willing to see things their way. Community associations are supposed to make important decisions in duly noticed, open meetings where owners can review the materials and speak if they so desire. An eight-figure commitment to be imposed upon the unit owners by an assessment ought to be managed in an “open” way. The board is forcing people to purchase something expensive together that they will be living with for as long as they own their homes. Such business meetings can get wild. Many unit owners are disengaged. Those who are engaged have strong opinions. There is a tendency to shift the discussion of the details out of the open and into an executive session, an informal committee, or to assign a director or manager to confer with the reserve specialist, contractor or engineer to discuss details and report back. Community associations are organized by recorded instruments that vest power in the board of directors, where the duties and prerogatives are defined. The members have the right to remove or replace the directors. Directors can change the direction things are going by replacing the professionals hired by the previous board. I agree that reserve studies ought to be done by qualified individuals. However, the problems are complex enough that regulating the professional field is not necessarily going to solve the problem. But the reserve studies will cost more because there will be fewer companies authorized to do the work.
Unit Owner Rescission of Additional Assessments: In community associations, there are situations where the members can override a board decision by a vote at a special meeting. The right of rescission may be set out in a statute or recorded instrument. I summarized statutory rescission rights in my post, “Can HOA Boards be Overridden through Group Action by Owners?” The Virginia Condominium Act allows unit owners to rescind board approved additional assessments:
All unit owners shall be obligated to pay the additional assessment unless the unit owners by a majority of votes cast, in person or by proxy, at a meeting of the unit owners’ association convened in accordance with the provisions of the condominium instruments within 60 days of the delivery or mailing of the notice required by this subsection, rescind or reduce the additional assessment.
Va. Code § 55.1-1964(E). This is a powerful tool which, if used wisely, allows unit owners to exercise oversight over board decisions. This cancels or reduces an imposed assessment without undoing related board decisions such as loans or contracts.
The work group takes aim at this procedure. Some view the provision as allowing the wrong kind of interference. The work group cites conflicts between several types of owners. For example, investors favor cosmetic improvements. Older owners tend to view reserve funding as a subsidy to future owners. The work group views boards of directors as more responsible and wiser and the unit owners as a majority as self-interested. All directors and members of condominium associations are under some sort of conflict of interest by the fact that they are investors and residents in the property subject to group decision-making. I touched upon these issues in my post, “Condominium Director Conflict of Interests and the Business Judgment Rule.” This reality is inherent, but the community still must govern itself through business decisions. Some business is to be conducted by the board, other business by the unit owners acting as a group. The owners individually retain certain rights which cannot be voted away even by 99% of the other members. Who is to say that the board or owners are more trustworthy when it comes to a huge decision? Many condominium bylaws were made when the statutory right of rescission was on the lawbooks. To take that procedure away now would in a sense rewrite the “contact.” The work group’s report fails to mention that even where the statutes do not provide an owner rescission procedure, homeowners may be able to block or undo board decisions by filing a lawsuit. In my opinion, the right of rescission ought to be retained, and broadened to include related subject-matter, because the unit owners need the ability to hit the “pause” button without necessarily having to file a lawsuit.
Use of Loans to Finance Major Renovations: The work group’s report recommends that the statutes be amended to authorize borrowing by associations for repair of capital components. A loan might make sense as a last resort for an urgent, essential project for which there are insufficient reserves in the bank but the unit owners are capable of repaying. Many people assume that HOAs and condominiums have the power to borrow money because they are businesses. The POAA and Condo Act do not authorize borrowing. The Virginia Nonstock Corporation Act lists borrowing as a corporate power. Unincorporated associations do not have an inherent ability to borrow money. However, declarations and bylaws may authorize borrowing, even for unincorporated entities. The issue of borrowing is tied to assessments. It is usually the unit owners who push for a loan option. However, bylaws typically do not have provisions that provide a framework for pass-through financing. If the board borrows money, typically the whole community becomes responsible in the event of a default. This can create controversy because responsible owners who pay off their portion initially upon demand do not want to later have to bail out their impecunious neighbors. From the lender’s perspective, the association’s cashflow is collateral, not the property itself. If poorly considered, legal reforms that loosen restrictions on condominiums borrowing money may result in unit owners becoming trapped in their investment. The condominium model was not designed around borrowing. Unit owners do not want the critical components of their building to fail. They also do not want the burdens of ownership to become like those seen in housing cooperatives or timeshares. I am concerned that the legislative proposals may address short term funding needs but change the nature of condominium investments into something more like cooperatives.
Aggressive Collection Tactics: Any attempts to fund reserves will require associations to intensify their debt collection with more liens, lawsuits, garnishments, and foreclosures. The work group recommends that the laws mandate that boards assess and collect sufficient funds to fully fund reserves. The general assembly already provided community association boards with powerful tools for debt collection. I discuss this in my article, “Memorandum of Association Assessment Lien.” The few consumer protection guardrails in the statutes for assessment liens and foreclosures are frequently ignored by HOA debt collectors. When they find themselves trapped in a cycle of community association debt collection, there are steps that a homeowner can take to protect themselves from later discovering that their HOA sold their home to an investor in foreclosure without their knowledge. For example, it is important for the homeowner to keep their association up to date with any changes to their snail mail address, and to confirm that the association acknowledged such updates.
Termination and Deconversion of Condominium: The work group’s report includes some vague statements about promoting redevelopment of condominium property. Usually, condominium termination results in substantial investment losses for those unit owners who are not in league with the developer acquiring the property. My analysis of the most recent amendments to the termination statutes are summarized in my previous post, “Proposed Virginia Legislation Would Empower Developers to Oppress Rights of Unit Owners in Sale of Terminated Condominium Developments.” Sometimes these terminations seem like legalized theft.
So where do things go from here for condominium unit owners? The work group mentions in its report that this mess arose because of the economic bias of current owners against future owners. While there is a natural human tendency to kick the can down the road, the solution for a particular community is going to be unique. Factories do not construct tailored suits. It is understandable that the industry that currently serves condominiums and HOA corporations, when their leaders are organized into such a work group would look for opportunities to present themselves and their friends as solutions. I suspect that the industry lobbyists will propose bills they will argue reflect the recommendations. However, I suspect that the language of the bills may go in a variety of directions. I hope that the General Assembly uses this as an opportunity to protect consumers. One can step back and observe that the condominium concept was flawed from the beginning and should not have spawned so many homes. However, even if legal reforms forbade new condominiums, the plight of current unit owners would remain. Reform of state laws could be of some help to condominiums struggling to address the cash crunch that plagues their efforts to renovate the critical structural components or major building systems. Despite whatever the legislature does, condominiums will still have to devise their own solutions. For many unit owners, the best means of self-protection is to sell their units while they still can. For those from whom that is not an option, they will need to plan to invest their own time and money in a group activity to resolve these problems.
Legislative Update (January 18, 2024):
The 2024 General Assembly is underway in Virginia. One proposal under consideration is House Bill No. 1209 which could fundamentally change what it means to own a condominium unit, particularly the financial obligations. Presently, if a Condominium Board makes a bad decision regarding additional assessment, let’s say they adopt a resolution to impose an additional assessment of $20,000-$40,000 per unit to do some sort of project, but the whole thing is poorly considered and needs to be redone, the unit owners can convene a special meeting to vote to rescind the additional assessment, without having to go to the trouble of removing the directors from office or file a lawsuit. HB 1209 would take the right to vote for rescission away from the unit owners. The rescission procedure could be refined through amendment, but the proponents of this bill want to do away with it entirely. Most developers did not put the rescission option into the bylaws because it was already in the statute.
Also, Virginia condominium associations do not have the ability to borrow funds unless the bylaws already allow it. HB 1209, if adopted, would allow the boards to borrow funds for any reason, only limited by what amounts the banks would be willing to lend, at whatever interest rates and terms the boards and the banks agree. Under this amendment, the boards can borrow as much as they want, and the unit owners must pay off their percentage “share” of this to sell their units. Under these amendments, condominium unit owners would need to track all of the board’s deliberations regarding borrowing money, so as to be aware of what additional burdens might be imposed on them as a unit owner. In a condominium where the board is urged to be aggressive with fundraising, this would lead to a approach to assessments whereby the unit owner would not be made aware that a large financial obligation was imposed on her personally for long after the time the loan is agreed upon. This is because boards commonly do not disclose much about their contract negotiations. This borrowing power amendment could have more consumer guardrails added, if attention is paid in the legislative process.
Every condominium unit owner in older (and newer) buildings in Virginia have a stake in this legislation.
Selected Legal Authority: