Part and parcel of living in a managed community or homeowners association is abiding by certain guidelines regulating what one can or cannot do to the exterior of their property. Nearly all HOAs have rules and regulations regarding neighborhood aesthetics; some more stringent than others. These rules lay out what types of landscaping elements association members can put around their homes. Association boards can prohibit members from erecting flagpoles or installing signs and fences, or from placing ornamental decorations like lawn jockeys or plastic flamingoes in their front yards. In some communities, folks can't paint their townhouse chartreuse or magenta—much as they may love the color—because that would violate the aesthetics of the community in which they live.
All this may sound well and good, but how much aesthetic regulation is too much, and what, exactly, are your powers and limitations as a condo association board regarding the regulation of architecture and landscaping in your community? How should you exercise your authority—and when should you back off? And where can non-board association members go to find out how architectural regulations might affect them?
Carved in Stone
For that last question, you usually don't have to look farther than the packet of governing documents and association rules every new homeowner receives when they buy their place and move in. The governing documents of your community should detail the limits, powers, and procedures vested in your condo association to oversee and regulate the community's overall appearance.
That seems simple enough; but in drawing up their architectural regulations, associations—even those with only their community's best interests in mind—often draft very strong controls, allowing individual owners and residents strictly limited alteration and renovation options and enforcing those regulations through inspections, fines, and formal procedures to follow before alteration projects are approved. While the extent and nature of permissible alterations and renovations vary between different communities, many associations choose to run a pretty tight ship. But on what basis does the board make those decisions—and how tight is too tight?
According to attorney and former Community Associations Institute (CAI) president J. David Ramsey and attorney Ronald Perl of Hill Wallack in Princeton, the standard for enforcement of aesthetic regulations is to ask if the regulation can be "reasonably applied." This is the standard that is maintained when cases go to court, and there have been several cases ruled in favor of owners who have altered their property against regulations; if they can prove that the alterations have no negative impact on the community, enforcement of the regulation may very well be found unreasonable, and therefore without legal merit.