Monday, May 19, 2014

Covenant Violations and the Fining Process - What Your Rights Are as a Homeowner

This is the time of year where our firm gets a lot of calls about covenant violations, mostly lawns that took a beating during the winter months.  The Florida climate, which goes from almost freezing to tropical in a 24-hour period, tends to be harsh on lawns, but I digress.  That's a blog about Florida-Friendly Landscaping.

There are several things the homeowner should know about the fining process because if you know what the law provides, it is less likely you will be taken advantage of by your HOA.  Remember -- knowledge is power.

A board of directors cannot impose a fine against a homeowner.  The HOA is required to have a committee of at least three (3) members, who are independent and are no relation to the board of directors, the property manager, officers, agents or employees of the HOA.  The committee should be comprised of an odd number to avoid a tie vote.  The odd number of members is industry standard and not part of the statute.  The committee has to agree by a majority vote to impose a fine, which cannot be retroactive, and the board of directors cannot override the vote to impose a fine, but can override the vote to withhold a fine being imposed.

The HOA is required to give the homeowner notice of a hearing to be held to vote on the fines.  The HOA is required to give the owner at least 14 days notice. Now here's where many HOAs get it wrong.  The statute, Fla. Stat. 720.305(2)(b) states "A fine or suspension may not be imposed without at least 14 days’ notice to the person sought to be fined or suspended...."  The statute does not say mailed at least 14 days in advance, IT REQUIRES THE NOTICE TO BE GIVEN TO THE OWNER AT LEAST 14 DAYS IN ADVANCE.

The statute also provides this is a hearing, not a meeting.  The HOA should not be noticing the hearing to the membership to attend as a lynch mob.  Hearings do not require notice.  The only people that should be present are the homeowners, the committee and if the HOA is going to present the case to the committee, a representative of the HOA.  This is usually the property manager or a board member.  The representative of the HOA should not be sitting in on deliberations and voting by the committee.  This would prevent the committee from making an independent decision.

If you find yourself in front of the committee, bring a recorder.  You have the right to do so, although the committee will probably say you don't.  Even board meetings are cut short and adjourned because board members tend to think you have no statutory right to record meetings.

You are entitled to obtain a copy of the minutes from the hearing.  The committee should create minutes and record the vote, listing the vote of each committee member.

If a fine is imposed, you should pay it and then challenge the decision.   Never risk your home.  If you pay the fine, the risk to your home is removed and you can challenge the decision without worrying about losing your home to a foreclosure.  Unpaid fines in excess of $1,000 can be the source of a lien and foreclosure.

Now, off topic, if you have one of those troublesome lawns that doesn't thrive no matter what you try to do to save it (you know, those St. Augustine lawns), then look into Florida-Friendly Landscaping (FFL).  You still have to submit an application to the ARC or ACC or whatever your HOA calls it, but by law the HOA cannot prohibit you from implementing FFL.  Check out the website by the University of Florida's IFAS extension at floridayards.org

As far as other violations go, please do not make improvements to your home without filing the ARC/ACC application and please do not store boats, trailers, RVs, 4-wheelers, jet skis and other recreational items on your property.  These are the biggest sources of fines in HOAs.


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