Area Seniors Fight For Homeowner's Association Rights

Article Courtesy The Manchester Times

By Bill McLaughlin

Published May 29, 2007

A delegation of about 100 Manchester, Berkeley and Brick seniors traveled to Trenton on Monday to be heard on the topic of multi-family association home rule.

The site was the New Jersey Museum and the symposium, titled "Homeowner Associations: Problems and Solutions," was sponsored by the law schools of Seton Hall and Rutgers University, Newark and Camden campuses.

State Senator Ronald L. Rice (D-Essex), who is sponsoring legislation that would allow the formation of a special office of ombudsman to oversee all common interest homesteads, and State Senator Robert Martin (R-Morris) presented opposing viewpoints in brief remarks to a crowd of about 150 spectators.

"This was an important day for anyone interested in this bill," said Jim Doran, president of the Manchester Coordinating Council, which sponsored a bus trip for many who oppose the bill. "We showed up in numbers and let the people who matter know where we stand."

Doran was referencing a panel of experts on homeowner association legislation who were stunned by the reply when they asked the crowd whether they were for or against the ombudsman.

"I think they were surprised at the response," Doran said. "The deck was stacked against us but we never back down. This is a fight we're in to win."

Another panel was comprised of a dozen members in favor of legislation, all of whom spoke of personal problems with their associations. All eventually required legal intervention to resolve.

Manchester resident Fred Lund, who has fought this legislation as long as anyone in New Jersey, found vindication when Senator Martin said, "I'm a lawyer and I don't understand everything in this law."

Lund has addressed state Senate and Assembly committees in the past, saying exactly that to deaf ears on both sides of the State House.

Lund read a short statement that asked the powerbrokers to take their time writing this legislation in a clear, concise manner. Lund is opposed to any legislation limited in scope to common interest developments as discriminatory.

Members of the Greenbriar senior enclave in Brick asked legislative panelists to separate condominium associations from homeowners associations in any legislation, enumerating a number of differences between the two.

Danielle Carroll, the Florida ombudsman, said the office was funded despite a study by a committee appointed by then-Governor Jeb Bush that decided the legislation was unnecessary.

"The committee said, 'We should not have a Common Interest Act because the difference between condos and homeowners associations was great,'" Carroll said.

She said Floridians pay $4 per year per unit to be governed by the ombudsman, who can appoint people to teach residents how to run scheduled elections - which are mandatory in Florida - and appoint election monitors if wrongdoing is suspected. Carroll insisted that most associations are honestly and fairly run, but educating board members and trustees is the key to success.

Senator Rice said he will be trying to merge the best of legislation offered by Senator Shirley K. Turner (D-Mercer) and Senator Joseph Doria (D-Hudson). Interestingly, Rice said he would enact legislation "if I'm back in June," a reference to a primary election battle he faces. Rice has repeatedly warned that legislation of some kind will pass this year, about a dozen years after it was first proposed.

Martin and Doria announced their retirements from the state legislature earlier this year.

Martin said, "There is time to get this right. Look to other states and get your input."

One dark note overshadowed the meeting. Edward Hanneman, an employee of the Department of Community Affairs and an expert in common interest governance, was not allowed to speak as a member of that state bureaucracy. When Hanneman registered to speak as a private citizen, he was told, according to moderator Margaret Bar-Akiva, by his bosses not to do so.

Many in the audience asked Ron Chen, the newly-appointed public advocate, to take on the responsibility of ombudsman. Chen, whose legal background is in litigation, said he has "been in Trenton a year now. I'll look at both bills carefully."

Kenneth Vanderziel, Manchester Town Council president, said any legislation that has an opt-in/opt out clause would be more successful than a mandatory membership.

Professor Frank Askin of Rutgers-Newark Law is litigating the Twin Rivers v. Twin Rivers Homeowners Association case, expected to set the bar for common interest law when the state Supreme Court renders its decision next month.

Askin said while most associations "are well run unfortunately that's not always the case." And that is the reason for a state-appointed office to oversee multi-family residences.

Askin recoiled when an audience member cited a study that indicated 90 percent of homeowners association members nationally said they were happy with their HOA.

"Which of the 10 percent poorly-run communities will vote to opt-in?" Askin teased the audience. "And how many communities are one vote away from being in the same position?"

Judy Noonan of the Holiday City-Silver Ridge Senior Coalition said the turnout was pleasantly surprising.

"Jim (Doran) deserves all the credit for getting a busload of people here on short notice," Noonan said. "The people who came here learned their voices will be heard, their votes do count. A number of speakers, especially the ombudsman from Florida, were very informative and interesting."