Can your association fine you for breaking the law?

Experts say check your governing documents

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Daniel Vasquez

Published July 15, 2011 

 

Can your homeowners or condominium association fine you for breaking city, county or state laws within your own community?The answer is yes, to the chagrin of owners who may be learning the hard way as some communities begin to crack down on those who may violate city and county ordinances and state statutes. Legal experts say that is true as long as the potential actions are spelled out in community governing documents.

That appears to be the case for Rich Blacharski of an unincorporated area west of Boynton Beach, who was notified recently by his homeowner association that he would be fined $76 for watering his lawn on the wrong day in violation of regulations set earlier this year by the South Florida Water Management District.

The district in March mandated that homeowners within its jurisdiction which includes Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties and parts of Orange and Osceola counties could only water up to twice a week: Those with odd-numbered home addresses can water lawns on Wednesdays and Saturdays, those with even numbers on Thursdays and Sundays; and no watering on any day between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Fines for residential owners vary by municipality, but typically range from $25 to $125 for a first offense, said Randy Smith, a spokesman for the district.
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However, Smith said this was the first time he had heard of an HOA issuing watering-restriction fines.

Last month Blacharski, and his wife, Joan, received a letter from Windchimes Lakes Homeowners Association, which runs a community of 190 homes, stating they would be fined $76 for breaking water district restrictions.

"Our HOA has fined us because our sprinkler system at our home malfunctioned and accidentally watered on the wrong day and wrong time," Blacharski said. "They claim that they have the legal right to fine us. We think that they are using this to generate revenue, since many homeowners are not paying their dues [and] told us the HOA is keeping the money from these fines."

Blacharski said he was warned that the first fine would be $76.66 and $100 per violation after that up to $1,000.

Steven Cohen, vice president of operations for A&N Management, which works for the Windchimes Lakes association, said community governing documents state that owners will held accountable for following local, county and state laws and that all owners were warned in recent months about the fines before any were levied.

  
"I would say that 95 percent of the owners in the community are in compliance, but there have been several violators that have been fined," he said. This is the only example of the community enforcing local laws, he added. "However, keep in mind the current drought is extensive, and water is everyone's resource."

Cohen also said that the fines were handed down by a committee set up by the association, as required by the governing documents. He said all fines collected will go to the community's general fund.

Cohen said he thinks the only way the sprinkler system will water on the wrong day would be if an owner manually changed the dial that controls watering times, or possibly if there were an extended electrical outage, which the association would be aware of. When there's a violation, the association warns the owner first and allows 14 days to correct any problems before issuing a fine.

Blacharski maintains he has not changed his dial and blames his watering violation on a malfunction of the system.

There is no way to know who is correct here, but the lesson from Blacharski's story is clear, say experts: Owners should check their documents to find out whether they may face penalties for breaking local and state laws.

"Communities often privately enforce laws within the community, where such laws are adopted, or incorporated within the community's governing documents," said Eric J. Neuman of the law firm Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs in Boca Raton. Community enforcement of local traffic laws is common, he said.

"HOAs and condominiums may conceivably fine owners for violating local water restrictions, when such restrictions have been adopted or incorporated within the community's governing documents," he said. "Ironically, community associations traditionally fined homeowners for failing to sufficiently water their yards, to discourage unsightly, brown lawns and gardens. After years of drought in South Florida, it seems that this association has reversed course."


[email protected] or 954-356-4219 or 561-243-6686. Daniel Vasquez' condo column runs Wednesdays in Your Money and at SunSentinel.com/condos. Check out Daniel's Condos & HOAs blog for news, information and tips related to life in community associations at SunSentinel.com/condoblog. You can also read his consumer column Mondays in Your Money and at sunsentinel.com/vasquez.

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