Homeowners associations fighting back in Virginia legislature

Virginia’s legislature is poised to pass a bill that would allow homeowners associations to charge fines not laid out in their declarations.

A homeowners association in Fairfax County recently lost a long legal battle with two residents, Sam and Maria Farran, who protested a fine over an Obama campaign sign in their front yard. The association went bankrupt. In 2012, a Fairfax condominium association lost a similar case in the Virginia Supreme Court.

On Monday, a Senate committee approved a bill that would allow such fines for violations of an association’s rules as long as the declaration does not explicitly ban them. Under another, such fines are limited to $10 each day of a violation for 90 days or a one-time $50 charge. The bill would require that “a reasonable opportunity” to correct the violation be given as well as a hearing before the association board.

Del. James L. LeMunyon (R-Fairfax) said the change is necessary to keep communities in good condition while making it less likely that disputes end up in court. “They’re not able to enforce the rules properly,” he said. Representatives from the association industry testified that it was difficult to get homeowners together to amend a declaration, which typically requires the support of a supermajority.

Most newer homeowners groups have fines included in their declarations, but the legislature didn’t grant that right till the 1990s, so those that formed earlier are constrained.

Foes, including Maria Farran, said the change is a way to circumvent the will of homeowners. “We fought for three years,” she said. “They took all their money, and their power and . . . managed to overturn the court’s decision” by lobbying the legislature.

Her association has formed again post-bankruptcy with new leadership — and without fines.

Franklin R. Short, a lawyer with the Defense Department who owns property in two homeowners associations and has been a board director in the past, also testified against the bill.

“This document would strip homeowners of property rights,” he said. “We’re taking away the right not to be fined, and I think that’s a very significant right.”

The bill has passed the House. In that debate, Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), a lawyer who represented the Farrans, called it a “power grab” for the association. “How many of your constituents have said: ‘My homeowners association doesn’t have enough power. Make it easier for them to tell me what to do.’?”

The number of homeowners and condominium associations has grown in recent years. Sixty-three million Americans live in one, according to the Community Associations Institute, compared with 2 million in 1970.

Rachel Weiner covers cops and courts in Arlington and Alexandria.
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