The Virginia HOA Power Grab

countrysideby James A. Bacon

When I was elected president of the Countryside Homeowners Association last month, I joked with our treasurer Russ Gambrell that our first order of business would be to plot our path to world domination. First we take over the homeowners association. Then we take over Henrico County. Then Virginia, the United States and the world! Mwa ha ha ha!

Actually, Countryside has a very laid-back homeowners association. Our covenant has relatively few restrictions. We’re a purely volunteer organization. We’ve kept our dues low, we hire a landscaper to maintain our two subdivision entrances, we hold neighborhood parties, we mobilize once a year to clean up the creek… and we refrain from meddling in peoples’ business. If a resident has a problem with the dog next door or the mailbox across the street, don’t come to the HOA — work it out with your neighbor.

As president, I bring my laissez-faire philosophy to the job. The last thing — the very last thing — I want is to become an HOA Nazi. I subscribe to the same philosophy with HOAs that I do with government: restrict your activity to a few core functions that you can do really well.

Alas, it appears that not everyone shares my live-and-let-live attitude. Just as government continually accretes power unto itself, it appears that homeowners associations, which perform similar functions as local government, want to do the same. The General Assembly is close to passing legislation that would allow HOAs to impose fines not specified in their covenants. Quoth the Washington Post (my emphasis):

On Monday, a Senate committee approved a bill that would allow such fines for violations of an association’s rules as long as the declaration does not explicitly ban them. Under another, such fines are limited to $10 each day of a violation for 90 days or a one-time $50 charge. The bill would require that “a reasonable opportunity” to correct the violation be given as well as a hearing before the association board.

Del James L. LeMunyon, D-Fairfax, argued that change is necessary to keep communities in good condition and resolve disputes before they end up in court. HOAs need more power to enforce their rules properly, and it’s difficult to amend bylaws because governance changes typically require support of supermajorities.

Franklin R. Short, an attorney who owns property in two homeowners associations, testified against the bill. “This document would strip homeowners of property rights,” he said. “We’re taking away the right not to be fined, and I think that’s a very significant right.”

The Post also quotes Del. Scott A. Surovell, D-Fairfax, as characterizing the bill as a “power grab” for associations.“How many of your constituents have said: ‘My homeowners association doesn’t have enough power. Make it easier for them to tell me what to do.’?”

Bacon’s bottom line: HOAs should be allowed the power to collect fees and fines that are specifically provided for in their charters. But the idea of allowing HOAs to impose fines “as long as the declaration does not explicitly ban them” represents a grotesque enlargement of HOA power and an invitation to abuse. What really amazes me is that Republicans would support such a measure. Republicans expend great energy opposing the expansion of federal-government beyond those enumerated in the U.S. Constitution, yet they seem perfectly willing to give HOAs to exact penalties from citizens in contravention of their governance documents. Is no one experiencing cognitive dissonance here?

I am flabbergasted by this bizarre turn of events. Do Virginians now have to rely upon Democrats — thank you, Scott Surovell — to preserve their individual liberties? This issue raises a bigger question: Do Republicans have any core philosophical principles anymore? Or have they simply become an aggregation of special interests … which apparently now include homeowner’s associations, or perhaps the companies that manage them?

This is one HOA president (I speak for myself, not the Countryside Homeowners Association) that wants no part of such power. I oppose the legislation and hope others do, too.