Homeowners suits are part of U.S. trend


Article Courtesy of The Beaches Shorelines

By Drew Dixon
Published on July 9, 2005

PONTE VEDRA BEACH -- Two lawsuits involving residents and their homeowner associations are part of a national trend of homeowners taking legal action against their developments' governing boards.

"It's truly picking up the pace," said Jan Bergemann of St. Augustine, president and co-founder of Cyber Citizens for Justice, a Florida-based property rights advocacy group with about 250 members that monitors homeowner associations.

Bergemann said homeowners and board members are partly to blame for rifts that end up in court. Homeowners don't often read all covenants they sign at closings for house sales and homeowner association board members aren't always aware of limitations of their powers.

"There are some board members who, without knowing the statutes and without even knowing the governing documents, make rules and regulations up as they go along. That, as you can imagine, leads to serious problems such as lawsuits and similar things," Bergemann said.

In one Ponte Vedra Beach lawsuit filed this year, Thomas Edwards Jr. sued the Spinnakers Reach II condominium complex in the Sawgrass development. He wants his two dogs allowed at his condo, but the homeowners association argues they've had regulations all along preventing animals. That case is scheduled for a Circuit Court hearing next month.

In the other Ponte Vedra Beach suit, the Sawgrass Association took action against Karen and Michael Dubin, claiming the couple wasn't properly maintaining their home.

In May, the Dubins filed a counterclaim in St. Johns County Court seeking monetary compensation for what they say is "harassment" by the association.

In 1990, the San Juan Capistrano, Calif.-based American Homeowners Resource Center set up a national database tracking disputes between residents and homeowners associations. The organization's mission statement is clear: "It is to help citizens in homeowner associations to take back their homes from the two generations of crooked lawyers, politicians, judges and vendors who have stolen them."

Arnold McMahon, executive director of the Resource Center, said the Ponte Vedra Beach lawsuits aren't surprising.

"In all the data that we've been getting from across the country, there seems to be some very serious flaws in the very structure of homeowners associations," McMahon said. "There's no question that lawsuits are increasing on an incremental basis."

McMahon said the increase isn't because there are more homeowner associations.

"Homeowner associations have been growing by leaps and bounds," McMahon said. "But the data we're getting indicates that the increase [in lawsuits] is in excess of the increase in the number of homeowner associations."

While McMahon said much of the blame can be placed on associations and attorneys, he also admitted residents buying homes in the associations are sometimes ignorant of rules.

"They really don't realize this is another layer of government, in fact, a more intrusive layer of government than maybe the federal, state or local layers of government," McMahon said.

But many residents defend homeowner associations. Carl Bloesing, president of the Ponte Vedra Beaches Coalition, which represents about 20 homeowner groups in northeast St. Johns County, said the legal disputes can hardly be blamed solely on homeowner associations.

"I think groups within the community need to have some common voice," Bloesing said, noting all those associations should be careful when forming. "They need to be chartered and draw up certain mission statements for the organization and have specific objectives stated so it is clear to all the homeowners."

Bloesing agreed homeowner associations should make new residents aware of new codes or restrictions. But he said real estate agents, in addition to homeowner associations, can help clarify covenants, too.

But it won't matter who advises a property owner who purchases land if the owner doesn't take the time to educate themselves about the property and homeowner rules, Bloesing said.

"It's incumbent upon the homeowner and the Realtor and to a lesser extent the people that they are buying the property from to make them aware of the restrictions," Bloesing said, adding he has "not seen any evidence" that homeowner associations are out of control.

"I don't think it's incumbent on the homeowners associations to sit down and make sure people read through all this stuff," Bloesing said. "The ones [associations] that I have dealt with have been reasonable. They take the responsibility of maintaining the aesthetic values and the real estate values within the community."

Bergemann said there's little room for expanded development within incorporated city limits. So unincorporated areas, such as Ponte Vedra Beach, where there is limited local municipal government, will see more legal scraps between residents and homeowner associations

"In the beginning, the associations were supposed to take care of maintaining the common areas," Bergemann said. "More and more, they're getting into what you can do with your home and what not to do. They're going as far as to tell you what to do with your curtains. As you can imagine, Americans are not going to go along with that kind of stuff."

Published Saturday, July 16, 2005


Homeowners' suits

Nobody blames homeowners' associations solely for all the legal disputes. [Shorelines, July 9] It's a mix of lack of education from both sides -- boards and owners. But especially people willing to serve as board members should take the time to learn the governing rules.

I agree that we need a common voice to speak up for our interests, but that voice has to be owner-friendly. I'm always cautious when I hear people saying that all the associations they deal with are reasonable. They either don't want to know about the many problems or they just wear blinders. That is the industry propaganda trying to hide the real problems.

If even judges say that there are too many association lawsuits on their dockets, it's obvious that there is something wrong.

Jan Bergemann

St. Augustine