Architectural Committees Should Be Specific

By Benny L. Kass
Saturday, July 23, 2005

Q I live in a neighborhood with a community association and am a member of the architectural control committee. We are unclear about the term "architectural guidelines." Are such guidelines only for guidance? Do they have the same force as our legal documents? Is disregard of a guideline ipso facto a violation? How should guidelines be enacted?

AHas your committee been accused of being the KGB of your association? Unfortunately, many community association members believe that people on the architectural control committees are spies who are trying to uncover every single violation, no matter the scope or size.

Most community associations throughout the country have some form of architectural review committee. Although the scope of these committees varies, the general theme is that to keep some semblance of uniformity and balance within the association, unit owners must receive approval from a committee before any exterior work is done.

However, there are owners -- whether in a condominium or in a homeowners association -- who believe that such control is not only unnecessary, but is an impingement on civil liberties. Some homeowners have had negative experiences with their architectural control committees; we have all read of the cases where these committees acted arbitrarily and without any common sense. In one case, an association asked a homeowner to remove a statute of the Virgin Mary from his front yard. Other cases have involved the struggles of those who want to fly the American flag and have been accused of violating the rules and regulations of the association.

However, design review within an association has at least two purposes: to establish and preserve a harmonious design for a community, and to protect the value of the property.

When you buy into a community association, right or wrong, you must understand that you have opted for community living. Decisions cannot be made unilaterally, nor can the rules and regulations of the association be ignored unilaterally.

One might disagree with the need for external uniformity, but if the association documents require such external uniformity, that is the law of the association and is binding on its members. You should read your association documents carefully to learn the scope and purpose of the architectural review committee. Indeed, you should have read this material before you decided to purchase into the community, and definitely before you became a member of the architectural control committee.

Most legal documents for community associations require that before a homeowner can make any alterations to the outside of a home, the plans must be submitted to a committee, generally referred to as the architectural control committee. This committee is charged with determining if the proposed plans comply with the association requirements.

To avoid any confusion, and to make sure that the committee is not acting on whim or emotion, most associations have adopted guidelines. Sometimes these guidelines are quite specific -- for example, the color of the paint that must be used or the height of the fence. Other guidelines are rather general, and that is where the problems are. A homeowner believes that he is in compliance with the general guidelines, while the committee disagrees. These disputes, if not resolved by negotiation or by the board of directors, can lead to litigation. The area of architectural control is perhaps one of the most litigated issues involving community associations.

Although architectural controls have a purpose, boards of directors of community associations must recognize that the architectural control committee cannot be a dictator, arbitrarily rendering decisions.

Courts have made it clear that covenants are valid and enforceable, provided there are clear policy guidelines establishing the overall standards.


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