Peter Bronson: Homeowners vs. associations: They huffed, they puffed …
Many who have sat on the boards of homeowner or road associations have worried about the relative informality under which such entities may operate.
Founding documents may be difficult to find; minutes may be sketchy; evidence of actions may exist only in the minds of board or association members.
If a homeowner challenged a board action, would the board be able to enforce its regulations?
A recent California Court of Appeal decision should give some comfort to homeowner and road association boards, and should be a warning to homeowners who knowingly violate association rules.
The case of Clear Lake Riviera Community Association v. Cramer involved a house that Robert and Catherine Cramer built on a sloping lot in Lake County. The lot was in a “common interest development” over which the association had the authority to regulate new construction.
An association committee responsible for review of construction plans told Mr. Cramer that the specific location where he planned to build would exceed the association’s height restriction by nine feet.
But the Cramers went ahead with construction.
The committee allegedly told Mr. Cramer that if he proceeded, his plans would have to be altered to meet the height requirement.
But the Cramers continued to build. The completed house differed from the approved plans, with one wall being even higher than previously shown. The house exceeded the height limit by nine feet and impinged on neighbors’ views.
The association sued the Cramers for an injunction forcing them to comply with the rules.
The Cramers defended by alleging the association had failed to prove the height restriction had ever been properly adopted; that it was unclear who the official committee members were; and that two non-members attended committee meetings.
The trial court rejected the Cramers’ defenses and ordered them to comply. (The Cramers also had asserted that the height restriction was an “operating rule,” such that specific Civil Code provisions had to be followed; but the court did not have to decide that issue because those provisions only became effective after the violation.)
The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court.
The appellate court noted that homeowner associations often operate informally and have incomplete records; but that it was clear that the height restriction had been treated as validly adopted for many years. Furthermore, the Cramers knew about the restriction but proceeded with construction anyway.
The Cramers complained that the injunction requiring compliance was too harsh, since it would require them to tear down their house. However, their own expert had testified that the house could be preserved, rather than torn down; “all” the Cramers had to do was remove it from the foundation (possibly having to cut it in half to do so), move it off the lot, lower the foundation, and remount the house!
The appellate court allowed the injunction to stand.
While accurate record-keeping is always advisable, the Cramer case should give neighborhood organizations some comfort that their rules can be enforced, especially when willfully violated.
Nevada County resident Peter C. Bronson practices law in the areas of creditors’ rights, insolvency and business litigation. Contact him at email@example.com.
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