Regulating The Regulators

Article Courtesy of The Tampa Tribune

By Mike Salinero

Published March 16, 2009

TALLAHASSEE - You've probably heard the horror stories about homeowners associations.

Like the ex-Marine in Jupiter who fought a four-year battle with his association because he wanted to fly an American flag in his yard.

And the 66-year-old man in Bayonet Point who went to jail because he violated association rules by failing to sod.

By some estimates, thousands of disputes break out each year between Floridians and their homeowners association boards. In the past two years, subdivision residents in New Tampa and Pasco County have filed suits trying to gain access to association financial records or challenging exclusive deals between the association boards and cable television companies.

"It's a dictatorship; you have to do what they tell you to do," said Lewis Laricchia, a Valrico resident who made homeowners association abuses the main plank of his unsuccessful campaign last year for the state House.

In an attempt to bring some order and decorum to a situation that has grown increasingly ugly, state Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa, has authored a bill putting new requirements on homeowners associations.

The bill's key provision would assign arbitrators to settle disputes between homeowners and boards within 90 days without expensive legal fees. The bill would also open board meetings and decision-making to scrutiny by residents and allow members more voice in decisions.

"We think 80 to 90 percent of disputes between members and their associations can be resolved easily and with minimum expense," Ambler said. "It will reduce a lot of hostilities and dramatically reduce the number of lawsuits."

Push For Regulation

Many critics of the current system, however, say Ambler's bill will not fix what's broken. Increasingly organized, and using Web and video technology to gain adherents, these activists are pushing for state regulation of the associations.

"Mediation will only work if you have two parties coming to the table trying to find solutions," said Jan Bergemann, an advocate for HOA members. "Association cases are very emotional and the success rate of mediation is very low."

Although Chapter 723 of the Florida Statutes lays down rules for homeowners associations, no government agency exists to enforce the law. Homeowners who feel a board is abusing its power are first forced into mediation, which can cost hundreds of dollars. If they aren't satisfied, they must go to court, where legal fees can run into thousands of dollars.

That's why Bergemann and other critics of the current system want a state agency created to regulate the associations, similar to the Division of Florida Condominiums, Timeshares and Mobile Homes.

But creating a new regulatory agency would cost money - a price that would be borne by homeowners in the associations. And despite the nasty fights that pop up in the media, most of the six million Floridians living in deed-restricted communities seem to like the rules and have few problems with their boards, supporters say.

"To be regulated means we need to start charging every home $5 or $10 a year to establish a regulatory office," said state Rep. Julio Robaina, R-Miami.

"The majority of people have not had problems; they've never been subjugated to action by an HOA board. They wouldn't want to pay any money for a regulatory agency."

Backyard Governing

Homeowners associations are minigovernments charged with maintaining drainage and common areas, and enforcing deed restrictions. They started soon after World War II and picked up steam in 1984 when water management districts started requiring a legal entity to maintain a subdivision's on-site drainage.

Pete Dunbar, a Tallahassee lawyer who represents homeowners boards, said most residents who moved to Florida after 1984 live in deed-restricted communities.

Critics complain the associations can be overbearing, fining residents for building a shed in their backyards or painting a mailbox the wrong color. But Dunbar says there are extremes on both sides. He once represented an association board against a resident who built a BMX dirt bike course in his backyard. The homeowner knew he was wrong and voluntarily restored the yard.

Ambler said his bill is important because the boards are the government that is closest to the lives of millions of Floridians.

"It probably impacts people's lives more than what we do in the Legislature on a daily basis," he said.