Published January 29, 2004
By MICHAEL PELTIER
TALLAHASSEE — A governor's task force Wednesday took steps to make it easier for buyers to beware of rules that govern homes they are interested in buying.
After five public hearings throughout the state, the Homeowners Association Task Force voted 11-1 to approve a 46-page proposal to revise laws governing homeowners association issues, ranging from meeting rules to resolving disputes between owners and associations.
The proposal will be delivered to lawmakers next month.
The panel's co-chairman said the group went beyond its mandate to improve the climate in many planned communities where disputes between association members and boards of directors over seemingly trivial issues — flower pots, flag poles, paint colors — have evolved into time-consuming, expensive legal battles.
"There are those that will say we did not go far enough," said William Sklar, a professor at the University of Miami Law School. "But it goes far beyond what was envisioned to begin with, and certainly beyond what the law now affords."
Yet, homeowners present for the panel's last hearing say disclosure requirements, dispute resolution and other legal protections outlined by the panel would provide little benefit for consumers, who still must ultimately take their cases.
That's because the task force a few months ago did not recommend creating an agency to regulate homeowners associations, a protection condominium owners have had for years.
"These procedures will do nothing if there is not a means to enforce them," said panelist Jan Bergemann, president of Cyber Citizens for Justice, a homeowner advocacy group based in St. Augustine.
Established by Gov. Jeb Bush last year to reduce tension between homeowners and boards that rule over planned housing communities, the panel Wednesday addressed disclosure issues, voting to establish a standard portfolio of information that must be made available to prospective home buyers before the sale.
That information might not be readily available from those who have owned a home for years, either because they've lost the original documents or it is no longer current.
With one dissenting vote, the panel voted to require homeowners associations to provide members who are selling their homes with copies of current governing documents, an annual budget and the group's most recent year-end financial statement.
The documents must be provided within 10 days of a request. Associations would be able to charge up to $50 for such documentation.
In practical terms, the recommendation would put the burden of providing such information on the homeowners association — through the seller of the home — rather than expecting prospective buyers to seek it out.
"For anyone who wants to know, the information is there," said panelist Barbara Katz, a homeowner from Boynton Beach.
Prospective homebuyers would also receive a standardized summary sheet outlining basic information about the housing development, including assessments charged, architectural and other restrictions and who controls the board.
Condominium buyers already receive a similar checklist.
Panelists also recommended bolstering protections against lawsuits filed by homeowners associations in which the intent is to silence complaints by threatening expensive legal action, so-called SLAPP suits (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation).
Under the proposal, homeowners associations would face triple damages for filing a SLAPP suit. Further, the proposal would not allow member dues to be used to pay for such legal efforts.
"This is done quite a bit and it's done to keep people quiet," said task force member Barbara Katz of Boynton Beach. "This is the United States, where we ensure people their right to speak."