All too often, a disagreement between neighbors, or between a board and a resident, goes from minor to heated to nasty—and then turns litigious. Our culture seems all too ready to sue at the drop of a hat, but lawsuits are not only expensive and time-consuming; they can poison the atmosphere of previously harmonious association communities. One way to avoid the swamp of litigation is to use alternative dispute resolution (ADR) to solve differences between parties.
While human beings are social animals, generally preferring to be in contact with other human beings, we are also a territorial breed. Stacking our housing units on top of each other, or side-by-side, appeals to us in one way, but not in the other. Lines become dotted, and blurred, and sometimes open for interpretation. Some complaints are easy enough to deal with, but some require help from outside the community.
"The most common problem between homeowners is noise," says Philip Alampi with TAP Property Management in Glen Ridge, "but those problems are usually dealt with before we get to ADR."
Other issues, like access to documents, adherence to house rules, e-mail voting, change of use for common spaces and many others may warrant an official action. When two parties cannot agree or come to a settlement, the first thing that may come to mind is generally a lawsuit, but if it is a housing-related dispute, the law in New Jersey says that the homeowners' association must provide ADR.
Another common problem lies in the initial paperwork for many housing associations, says Alampi. "Unit-owner-versus-board is the most common ADR proceeding. It happens because many of the condominium complexes in New Jersey were built so quickly in the late 1980s. They happened so quickly that attorneys were taking documents that other attorneys had used for other developments, without really understanding the project that was being built. Because they used boiler plate information, sometimes the information was not as exact as it could have been, leaving many things available for interpretation."