Restrictions common for homeowner groups

Dispute offers lesson

The dispute between the Knob Hill Property Owners Association and the group prepared to build a home for a disabled veteran should serve as a warning: "buyer beware."


Covenants are restrictions most neighborhood developers set, attorney Brian Bush said. The document, filed in the county's real estate records, lays out restrictions on property and what the homeowners association's powers and obligations are.

It's a buyer's responsibility to learn all the rules, Bush said. By taking title to a home in such a neighborhood, the buyer is accepting the rules. It is not a contract, but it is just as binding, Bush explained.

A HOA usually has an architectural-type committee to determine whether building and renovation plans meet the covenant's specifications, attorney Freddie Sanders said.

A HOA can run into trouble if it stops enforcing some rules or lets some homeowners break the rules but not others, Sanders said. The rules must be enforced consistently and applied the same to everyone or covenants can be struck down by a court.

The HOA's perspective can change. West Lake in Columbia County used to have a rule that residents could not park a pickup at a house, Sanders said. But after so many people began driving pickups, the rule was abandoned.

Sanders questioned the legality of the Knob Hill committee's unlimited power.

Attorney Randolph Frails pointed to Section 4 of Knob Hill's Architectural and Covenants document, which specifically gives the committee total discretion. In the case of Homes for Our Troops, which wants to build a home for paralyzed Afghanistan veteran Sean Gittens and his family, if the organization didn't have prior approval from the committee, the committee could turn the plans down for any reason, Frails said.

However, if Homes for Our Troops has an e-mail from the HOA stating the plans were approved -- as founder John Gonsalves said they have but hasn't released -- that should end the matter in the organization's favor, he said.

Attorney John "Jack" Long said in an e-mail that from reading the rules, it appears the Knob Hill committee has broad discretion, and generally a court upholds that discretion.

"However, from a realistic point of view, I don't see any individual standing up and stating to our community and to the press that a disabled veteran cannot have a home built for him in any subdivision or area in our community," Long said.

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Property covenants

Property covenants were used in the past to prevent blacks from living in certain neighborhoods.

In 1948, the Supreme Court reversed an earlier ruling from 1926, finding such covenants unconstitutional.

The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 extended constitutional protection to disabled and elderly Americans and families with children. Covenants cannot prohibit buying or selling property to these protected classes.

More information about the covenants of local communities can be found on their Web sites.