Board members of some of the 175 homeowner associations in Loudoun County are scrambling to comply with a new Virginia law that will go into effect July 1, requiring associations to open their financial records, provide advance copies of agendas and take other steps to conduct their business in the open.
But members of other associations say they are relaxing: They already do everything the law asks.
"Actually, Countryside has been shining bright under the sunshine laws for many years," said Bruce Tulloch, president of the board of directors of the Countryside homeowners association, which represents about 2,450 households.
In Cascades, which has a homeowners association with 5,000 households, the association's board of directors is arranging the management office so residents will have a place to review documents. The association also is reviewing the format of its newsletter to make room for schedules of its meetings and the agendas of upcoming board meetings.
World Wide Web sites -- which are not required under the law -- are being mentioned frequently as a way to get official association news and records to homeowners.
The legislation, an amendment to the Virginia Property Owners Association Act, was signed last month by Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R). It was sponsored by Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun) after association members complained that they didn't know how their dues were being spent, that association boards did not let them know about meetings and that they withheld financial records.
Under the Mims amendment, homeowners who send a written request, good for one year, must be notified of regular meetings and, when reasonable, special meetings.
The law also requires associations to allow any member to record meetings on audiotape. Agendas are required to be available for review before the meetings take place. And members may review a board's plans for spending their dues before those expenditures are made.
The issue of openness in homeowner associations surfaced in Loudoun the last two years as several planned communities reached "transition" -- when enough houses have been built that control of the board passes from the developer to homeowners.
In Cascades, residents complained that they couldn't get copies of the agendas for upcoming board meetings alerting them to plans for large expenditures, including about $150,000 to upgrade a planned community center and $1 million for the renewal of a management contract for which competitive bids had not been sought.
In the weeks since the legislation was signed into law, Mims said he has been contacted by representatives from Cascades, Reston and Countryside, the association to which Mims belongs. "They wanted to make sure they understood what the [Virginia] General Assembly had done," Mims said.
Mims said he spoke about the law at a convention for Northern Virginia homeowner associations that belong to the Community Associations Institute, an Alexandria-based trade group for 205,000 homeowner associations nationwide.
Suzanne Volpe, a homeowner who is president of the board of the Cascades Community Association, met with Mims to go over the requirements of the law, Mims said. "She walked through the bill step by step," he said.
Volpe said homeowners in Cascades will be able to review a copy of the agenda for upcoming board meetings in the management office during business hours.
Before the bill was signed, a copy of the agenda wasn't set aside for members to review. A notice of meetings also will be posted on the community bulletin board in the office.
The manager of the association has been instructed to develop a plan for sending a notice of meetings to members who make such a request, Volpe said.
In Countryside, minutes of board meetings and upcoming agendas already are published in the community's monthly newsletter, the Countryside Courier. Under the community's bylaws, the publication of association business in the newsletter constitutes legal notification, said Doug Fleming, a lawyer for Countryside Proprietary.
Matt Claassen, treasurer of the board of directors of the Ashburn Village Community Association, said the association stepped up publication of its newsletter from semimonthly to monthly "so that we can communicate more regularly."
The newsletter will include a record of every board action taken at meetings. A community Web site also is planned, with news and minutes of board meetings likely to be available online.
But, Claassen added, the association's efforts to make more information available in a timelier manner might be lost on homeowners who typically don't participate in droves in their communities' business.
His concern was echoed by Raymond Ceresa, a Sterling lawyer who represents about 30 homeowner associations. He added that many associations might not be aware of the legislation until they are alerted to it by the Community Associations Institute.
But in the tiny homeowner association of Mosby Square, 15 town houses one block from Main Street in Middleburg, members have only one regularly scheduled meeting a year -- and participation is a given, said Frank Gilchrist, the association's president.
"We put out an agenda for the annual meeting," Gilchrist said. "I mail it to them. If they want any records, they come to me."