By Ronald L. Perl, Esq.

A reporter recently contacted me for an article involving architectural controls. It caused me to think about the need for balance in the enforcement of architectural covenants. To be sure, architectural covenants and controls play an important role in common interest communities. Exterior changes can have a negative impact on property values, property maintenance and, at times, the ability of other owners to use and enjoy the common property. In other instances, minor exterior alterations or installations can have little impact on the other owners or the association as a whole. Associations need to exercise reason and good judgment in determining when architectural guidelines can be relaxed to allow homeowners to make harmless changes.

More than 30 years ago, before I practiced community association law, I was a board member in a homeowners’ association. I have served on other condominium and HOA boards since. In the “old days” it seemed important that we have uniform storm doors on every front door. It had to been the same door with a cross buck solid bottom and glass upper half. Over the past three decades, some associations have softened their attitude on screen doors, concentrating on the strength and quality of the door and perhaps limiting color choices rather than prescribing only one door. Strength and quality are relevant because inexpensive doors tend to deteriorate in a short time, causing the home’s exterior to look run down. Is it so important that all doors be identical in every respect?

When exterior change and security issues meet, it is critical to consider the purposes of the particular restriction measured against the reason for the requested alteration. In a California case of significance, a condominium association was held liable for a woman’s injuries suffered in a mugging near her unit, in an area that was dark because the association refused to allow her to install a security light and made her disconnect the one she installed without permission. Currently, a homeowners association is considering whether to require a homeowner to remove a security gate that has been placed over their unit’s sliding glass door. It seems that there have been a rash of “smash and grab” incidents in this neighborhood. The door in question faces the woods. Isn’t this an appropriate time to ask “what harm does the security gate do to the building or other occupants or owners, either individually or collectively?” Maybe the bolting of the door to the building has penetrated a common element. Maybe it will have to be temporarily removed for residing or painting. There are ways to handle this short of prohibiting the gate (a license agreement, for example, which requires the owner to accommodate the repair or painting issue).

The point is this: rule making and rule enforcement are important functions of a community association. In performing those obligations, association boards should keep their eye on the ball – which is the protection of property and the health, safety, and welfare of the residents.