Proposal attempts to improve relations between homeowners and associations 
Article Courtesy of the St. Augustine Record
Published January 29, 2004

TALLAHASSEE -- To keep disputes between homeowners associations and homeowners out of court, and to "harmonize" their relationship, a state task force has completed a 46-page draft proposal for the Florida Legislature to consider.

The Department of Business and Professional Regulation's Homeowners Association Task Force wrapped up a series of meetings Wednesday that began in September and were held across the state.

Task Force Co-chairman William Sklar said the proposal may not go as far as some would like, but it goes farther than what was envisioned when the task force was created. He also said there will be opportunity for additional input as the proposal moves through the Legislature.

"The journey's not over," Sklar said.

The proposal is an attempt to improve relations between homeowners and homeowners associations by increasing regulations. The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation currently regulates homeowners associations.

The draft would be added to existing Florida Statutes relating to homeowners associations if it is approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jeb Bush. It could be introduced in the upcoming session.

The draft calls for an alternative resolution to disputes such as mediation to avoid a lawsuit. The proposal would protect the right of association members that want to fly an American flag. And no fine levied by the homeowners association could become a lien on someone's property.

The draft would require homeowners associations to disclose its annual budget, a financial statement, the amount of assessments, whether a developer controls the association and whether the association is in litigation for $100,000 or more. The information would be available to buyers before a house is purchased.

The seller provides the information, but the homeowners association has to be obligated to make the documents available, Sklar said.

"I don't care if they keep them in their night stand drawer, they have to make them available," Sklar said.

The draft would also require homeowners associations to maintain records and provide copies when a homeowner requests them.

The meeting Wednesday was the sixth and final meeting of the task force. Policy recommendations were made in previous meetings, and much of the discussion focused on legal technicalities and the wording of the draft.

The task force voted unanimously to submit the draft to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

But Task Force Member Jan Bergemann, who lives in St. Augustine, abstained from voting. He said he supports a different proposal relating to condominium associations that conflicts with the task force's proposals.

Bergemann wanted the task force to recommend that a new state agency be created to regulate homeowners associations. The task force discussed it in a previous meeting, but decided not to support it.

"In my opinion as a homeowners advocate and after comparing notes with more knowledgeable people, it is my understanding that most of the proposals will not help to solve the many problems," Bergemann said in a statement prepared before the meeting. "Even if there are some basically very good ideas, the missing enforcement makes all ideas null and void."

Amelia Island resident Stephen Comley had a similar complaint. He said he had been told the Department of Business and Professional Regulation's staff had been cut. He said the department wasn't capable of taking care of its current responsibilities.

"How can you even consider giving this department any more responsibilities over HOAs," Comley said.

Comley used to rent his condo in the Piper Dunes North neighborhood of Amelia Island Plantation when he was away for part of the year in Maine. He was able to generate $7,200 a month.

When he moved to Piper Dunes in 1996, his condominium association allowed the practice of renting. But the association voted in 2000 to prohibit short-term rentals.

Comley said he should be grandfathered-in. Otherwise he could be forced to move.

He's been fighting his association for three years.

A bill that would have further regulated homeowners associations was moving through the Legislature last year, but it never came to a vote. Bush created the task force to make recommendations and possibly draft legislation for lawmakers to consider.

Diane Carr, secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, said she was delighted with the product that has evolved. She said the department will look for lawmakers to sponsor and file the bill.

"We will let the legislative process unfold," Carr said.