Developers of condominium communities and HOAs often reserve access easement rights within the Declaration/Deed Restrictions for the subdivision, especially when the Developer owns yet-undeveloped neighboring property. But what happens if the Developer forgets to reserve such easement rights specifically within the Declaration or Deed Restrictions? A recent case explores this dilemma, and at least in this case, the HOA owners come out on top.

Facts

In a 2019 case, some lot owners within a subdivision, which had been advertised as a private, gated community, sued the Developer for trying to enforce an access easement he had for the main road within their subdivision. The Developer claimed he needed access to that main road in order to develop the neighboring lots behind the gated community.  The Developer also believed he could grant access to the owners of the neighboring lots through the gated community. 
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The Board of Directors always has the power to make and amend Rules and Regulations on its own, without owner approval…right? Wrong.  The Board’s rule-making power and authority completely depends upon what authority is given by the Declaration and Bylaws, and as we know, all associations’ Declarations and Bylaws are different!  This is true in Wisconsin and in many other States.  Knowing what is in your governing documents will keep you out of troubling lawsuits.
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Problem

What do you do if you want a detached garage but your documents don’t allow it?

Facts

Plaintiffs sought to enjoin the construction of a detached garage in their association on the grounds that it was specifically prohibited by the declaration. However, the declaration provided a procedure for review of any proposed structure that would otherwise violate the declaration. That process required submission and approval in writing from the Trustee (think Architectural Control Committee or “ACC”). However, the Association had not had any ACC in place for approximately nine years.
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Frequently we are asked about either inconsistent association documents or advised that although our documents say X we have always done Y so won’t our past precedent control? The answer is NO.  Your documents control.  You must follow what your documents say, unless there is something in them that is illegal or against public policy. This same point is continually stressed by the courts around the country.
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Becker Boards Summit, LLC v. Summit at Copper Square Condominium Association – 2018 WL 6695279 ( 2018 Ariz.)

Issues:  The court in this case addressed two important issues:

  1. Can a Developer, before turnover, amend a Declaration to convert Common Element to Limited Common Element for the benefit of a Developer Unit?
  2. Can Developer contracts entered into before turnover be voided after turnover?


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IMPRESSION: The ruling in Great Am. Ins. Co. v. State Parkway Condo. Ass’n, No. 17-cv-3083 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 11, 2018), should serve as a cautionary tale to Condo and HOA boards.

DETAILS: In Chicago, a unit owner of a condominium located at 1445 North State Street filed an Illinois state discrimination claim in 2007 against the State Parkway Condominium Association (“SPCA”) for failure to accommodate his hearing disability during SPCA Board meetings.  The SPCA defended the claim under its 2006-2007 Non-Profit Management and Organization Liability Insurance Policy (“policy) issued by Travelers Casualty and Surety Company of America (“Travelers”).

A settlement between parties was reached in September 2007; but six months later, the SPCA sued the same unit owner in an entirely unrelated matter.
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Issue:  If your association was destroyed by fire or some other hazard, and it did not make sense to rebuild, how would the funds be divided?

Problem.  Odds are that you don’t know the answer.  The fact that you don’t know should scare you.  Is every unit in your association worth the same amount?   I doubt it.  Do you each pay the same amount in assessments?  Does that control?  What does your declaration say about the distribution of insurance proceeds if the unit owners elect not to rebuild?  Do you understand what it says? Does it even make sense?
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A defense owners can raise if the Board claims the owner has violated the rules is “selective enforcement,” meaning the Board arbitrarily picks on some violators and not others. In addition, owners oftentimes like to rely on approval given by one board member, taking that as “Board approval” of the owner’s actions.  The case below tackles both of these issues, in the context of a dispute over an owner’s installation of hard-surface flooring.

Facts.  In a 2017 case, an owner who lived in an upper-level condominium unit replaced her carpeting with laminated flooring.  The problem is, the Association’s Declaration prohibited the installation of any flooring other than carpet, without prior Board approval. The owner had not received approval from the Board prior to installation of the flooring, but she did allegedly have an email exchange with the Board president wherein he said it would be ok.
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