ANNAPOLIS – In the front yard of her Regent’s Square townhouse in Rockville, Diane Young replaced several prickly bushes with azaleas, laid a brick walkway, arranged a flower bed with railroad ties and installed stepping stones for watering her impatiens and pansies.
But one neighbor didn’t like the landscaping and complained to the homeowners association. Only after the matter was decided in her favor did Young even learn about the complaint.
Cases like Young’s have provoked lawmakers to call for stricter control over association boards.
The boards, usually volunteers from the neighborhood, enact covenants, or rules. Covenants vary, but usually include restrictions on changing the exterior of a dwelling and specifications for keeping the property clean – sometimes even addressing what kinds of vehicles may be parked and where.
Nothing in state law currently addresses how the boards do business.
Del. Cheryl Kagan, D-Montgomery, this year sponsored a condominium owner’s bill of rights that would force association boards to justify their covenants. And Del. Gilbert Genn, D- Montgomery, sponsored the related Maryland Homeowners Association Act, which would set up procedures for governing private communities.
Homeowners associations are required by law to disclose covenants to home buyers, but Kagan doesn’t think that’s good enough.
“Some of [these associations] do not function in a way that’s democratic,” Kagan told the House Economic Matters Committee when her bill was heard.
Both bills were held over for further study. But Kagan, saying she hopes the measures raised lawmakers’ awareness of “problems and abuses,” plans to introduce her legislation next year.
Association defenders feel that enacting a law would be going overboard.
Peter Kristian, chief operating officer for the Montgomery Village Foundation, wants the state instead to “set a baseline” to ensure that boards are elected properly and homeowners have their say. But specific rules need to be determined by individual communities, he says.
Kristian says Montgomery has been the most progressive county in the state. He cites its Commission on Common Ownership Communities, an independent board that resolves disputes between individual residents and their associations.
“The majority are content,” he says.
Ronald Wohl, a homeowner in Flint’s Grove in North Potomac, agrees — to a point. Wohl has served on an association board, and says that most community residents are happy to follow the rules. Only the occasional horror story gets attention, he says.
But Wohl believes residents need better means to hold the boards accountable. “We elect legislators who change our lives,” he says. “We don’t elect the real estate owners who wrote these covenants.”
Pat Wigginton, president-elect of the Maryland Homeowners’ Association and condominium owner at Grosvenor Park for 12 years, agrees.
“There should be some way to make changes as time changes,” Wigginton says.
Vicky Satern, who has lived in a condominium in Silver Spring for about 20 years, says communities are often “managed like they’re chess pieces.” Satern is a member of the Center on Homeownership in Association Governed Communities, a group that works for homeowners’ rights.
The secretary of state and attorney general enforces the Condominium Act and the Real-Estate Time Sharing Act. But Satern said these laws, which call primarily for developers to register with the state, are of little help when residents have problems with their associations or the way they are run.
Such homeowners usually end up in court, Satern says — even if they can’t afford to be there. -30-