BATTLE AT TWIN RIVERS
Twin Rivers residents win battle; board to continue war
Lawsuit against homeowners' association yet to be finalized
Courtesy Windsor-Hights Herald
By: William Wichert, Staff Writer 
February 10, 2006 

  EAST WINDSOR A group of Twin Rivers residents won a constitutional argument this week related to a lawsuit challenging, among other things, restrictions on posting political signs and a voting system based on property values.


   But their lawsuit against the homeowners' association has yet to be finalized as it has been remanded to a lower court and the association plans to appeal to the state Supreme Court.
   

"If they're not happy with these policies," said association attorney Barry Goodman, "they should look elsewhere to live."
   A three-judge panel from the Appellate Division of the state Superior Court on Tuesday found that the constitutional right of free speech must be applied to the 10,000 residents in Twin Rivers a ruling that some are heralding as a landmark decision for planned communities across the state.


   "We're saying the time has come to look at it in the face and call it what it is, which is a quasi-governmental entity," said Margaret Bar-Akiva, one of the residents involved in the lawsuit. "The bigger picture are these mini-governments listed as private corporations that turn out to be mini-dictatorships."


   In Twin Rivers, the legal fight is not over. The residents challenged the constitutionality of the rules imposed by the homeowners' association, but the appellate decision did not rule on those regulations. Instead the case has been sent back to the state Superior Court, which previously dismissed it, instructing the court to apply the constitutional argument to its original ruling.


   And before the lower court reviews the case again, the homeowners' association will appeal this week's appellate decision to the state Supreme Court and no changes will take place at Twin Rivers in the near future, said Mr. Goodman.


   "Twin Rivers will continue to operate the way it has," he said. "It doesn't matter what standards apply, the Twin Rivers' regulations will be upheld."


   Scott Pohl, president of the association's board of directors, said a Supreme Court ruling would offer a final conclusion to the legal battle in a community where residents' rights have always been addressed.


   "As far as freedom of speech and first amendment rights, it's been there all along."
   The regulations challenged in the lawsuit include restrictions on the posting of political signs around homes and use of the community room, along with the voting system to elect the community's board of directors. In Twin Rivers' weighted system, votes are based on the value of one's property.


   This week's court decision did not approve of the residents' demands for a one-person, one-vote system and greater access to financial documents, but Frank Askin, the residents' attorney, said the judges backed the overarching message: The New Jersey Constitution must be applied to planned communities like Twin Rivers.


   "This is not to be decided by (homeowners') contracts but by constitutional issues," he said.
   But Mr. Goodman said no court in the country has ever applied constitutional standards to how homeowners' associations deal with their own members.


   "I think the appellate decision simply got it wrong," he said.


   The state Department of Community Affairs already provides "more than enough governmental regulation" and all residents agree to the community's regulations when they buy a home there, said Mr. Goodman.


   Moving out of these planned communities, as Mr. Goodman suggested, may not be very easy, especially in the expensive housing market in East Windsor, said Mr. Askin. While houses in planned communities like Twin Rivers are priced at about $200,000, it may cost residents almost double to live outside such a community, he said.


   "People don't buy in these communities because they love the regulations," said Mr. Askin.
   For those residents who remain frustrated with the community's regulations, Mr. Goodman said, there are ways for them to change them. Residents can either get elected to the board of directors, consult with one of their board representatives or start a grassroots movement to push for a communitywide vote to amend those regulations.


   "It's not typically done, but they have the choice," he said.


   The regulations in Twin Rivers are "extremely difficult" to amend, said Ms. Bar-Akiva, because 75 percent of the community has to vote on changing them. With people leading busy lives, any grassroots movement faces a daunting task, she said.


   The only way for residents to challenge fines levied against them for violating those regulations without going to court an appeal process known as the alternative dispute resolution has also become more difficult in recent years, said Ms. Bar-Akiva, who also serves as president of the statewide Common-Interest Homeowners Coalition.


   After Ms. Bar-Akiva and her husband were fined in 1997 for having the wrong type of storm door, they successfully appealed that decision to the Twin Rivers ADR committee, she said. Soon after that, the committee was disbanded and the homeowners' association changed the ADR system, limiting what type of objections residents can bring forward, she said.


   Mr. Pohl said that committee was disbanded because it was made up of volunteers from the Twin Rivers community who were not always properly trained to address ADR issues. The homeowners' association decided to place ADR in the hands of professional mediators, he said.


   The issues that Ms. Bar-Akiva is referring to election procedures and the community's established regulations were never subject to the ADR process, said Mr. Pohl.


   Although the Appellate Division upheld the Superior Court's ruling on the community's ADR process, Mr. Askin said this week's decision will spark changes in Twin Rivers as well as in other municipalities across the state.


   A similar lawsuit at a Guttenberg condominium complex in Hudson County had been held up by a judge waiting to see the outcome of the Twin Rivers case, and several bills have been introduced in the state Legislature aimed at revising the powers of homeowners' associations.
  

 "The rules are a-changin'," said Mr. Askin.


CLICK HERE TO READ THE OTHER ARTICLES:

Dissident homeowners get a voice
The Battle At Twin Rivers

Lawsuit Tests Power of Homeowner Associations

Homeowners test the power of their own association


Ruling of the Superior Court Of New Jersey Appellate Division

Amicus Curiae Brief of the Community Associations Institute

Response To The Amicus Curiae Brief Of The CAI