See you in court? Not for home disputes

HB 923 -- SB 1444 -- Home Court Advantage Pilot Program

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

Published April 4, 2007

TAMPA - Neighborhood rifts tend to start small - a dirty roof, a late fee payment, an overgrown lawn.

But sometimes, they spiral out, pitting homeowners against their neighborhood associations in long, expensive court battles.

The Florida Legislature is considering a bill that could keep some deed restriction battles out of court.

The bill, dubbed "Home Court Advantage," is sponsored by Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Lutz, in the state House and Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, in the state Senate.

Instead of going straight to court, associations and residents in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties would pay $100 to file a claim and get a hearing with a lawyer acting as a magistrate in 45 to 60 days.

"The whole idea of this is to encourage people to settle their own disputes and put a little bit of a bite in there," said Ambler, who was president of a homeowners association for 10 years.

That "bite" would be a $250 fee paid by the case loser to staff the arbitrator. It's incentive for people to settle their problems before the magistrate even makes a ruling.

The hearings would be held in traffic courtrooms on weeknights. The magistrate would hear five to 10 cases a night.

The pilot program would be mandatory for the association and its homeowners. After the hearing, the losing party would have 30 days to appeal the ruling in circuit court.

"We believe, in the long run, it will save money because the goal is to keep those cases out of court," Justice said. "It relieves the backlog in the courts."

Another version of the bill failed to gather steam in the House last year. This year, Ambler is hoping for better results with Justice as Senate sponsor.

The bill still has to be heard by multiple House and Senate committees during the current legislative session, which ends in May.

There are about 165,000 homeowners associations in the nation, producing myriad legal cases. Hillsborough County alone has more than 650 associations. Pinellas County has about 600 associations.

"I've had a real intimate involvement with these type of neighborhood issues for some time," said Ambler, who has worked with many associations as state representative.

Elected or appointed homeowners in the community normally enforce rules and regulations, which can range from acceptable house colors to acceptable grass length.

Associations often levy big fines against rule breakers, and some homeowners dispute the fines in court. At times, associations sue their residents for refusing to conform.

"When one party or the other doesn't feel like they have to cooperate, you run into problems and these problems will fester," Ambler said.

In 2005, the Magnolia Trace homeowners association in New Tampa sued a couple for painting their driveway and sidewalk, an act that the association said defied deed restrictions.

A child's playground set spawned a three-year court battle in New Port Richey's Gulf Harbors Woodlands.

In 2004, the Barrington Hills Homeowners Association in Dunedin sued a resident whose fence was too close to the sidewalk.

The same year in Westchase, a homeowner filed suit against the community association. He claimed the association wrongly charged him a $100 fee twice.

"A lot of the problems are just incomplete or inaccurate communication in any dispute," said Brian Ross, association president in Westchase.

A speedier process appeals to Tom Jones, manager of the Plantation of Carrollwood subdivision. Jones said court-mandated mediation takes too long and adds fuel to fire.

"The violation continues during that period and animosity builds, they get frustrated with us and they think they're being picked on," he said.

If the bill becomes law, Ambler would like to see the pilot program expand throughout the state.