ABOUT ARCHITECTURAL REVIEW
My blogs are intended to be informative, but this may digress into a rant because it is based upon the personal and expensive experience of Frank, a house renovator to whom I sold a foreclosed house in a gated, upscale neighbourhood, giving it promise as a good investment at $148,200. Because I found the house and profited from its purchase, because Frank is a friend of mine and I regard him as an artist who completely understands functional and aesthetic design, the four month conflict with architectural review gone mad was personal for me as well. The house was supposed to go on the market in July 2016. I will finally list it in December 2016 for $305,000, missing the prime home sale season.
I will never live in a community with an architectural review committee. Living in a southern state more aptly described as rural than urban, my property is my property, and not subject to the uninformed and intrusive opinions of my neighbors. However, I do understand their purpose, to preserved harmonious design and to protect property value. If you purchase in such a neighbourhood, decisions about external changes are no longer yours.
Frank has a strong resume. A Georgia Tech trained engineer, by 1972 he was building houses in Columbia. When the market soured due to interest rates going from 7.29% to 18.45%, he turned to renovating bars and restaurants in Five Points and the Vista. Later he designed and built “hardscapes” of stone, water courses and plants, including the Botanical Garden at Riverbanks Zoo, decks, patios and porches, including mine, where in warmer months I spend every night. His resume also includes (1) the Palmer House, designed to resemble an African thatched dome design, with a modern interior; (2) Grovewood, a plantation house in Eastover built between 1765 and 1800, was no longer insurable when work began. It required acute attention to architectural detail and respect for historical significance.
Included on the architectural review committee, were a self-described interior designer and a woman who called herself an artist. Looking around her dining room and living room from where I sat, I found no original art. I later learned she teaches dance. Also on the committee was the biggest offender of architectural review in the community, who added a large room to the lakeside of the house, constructed of hardiplank, completely out of character in the all brick neighbourhood, visible to every other house on the lake.
Despite the clear fact that there were multiple violations of harmonious design throughout the community, that there were virtually no guidelines applicable to the project in the covenants and restrictions or homeowner documents beyond the phrase “in harmony,” and no supporting opinion from an educated and experienced AIA member architect, the committee threatened litigation over the porch, roof, bay windows, and the backyard fence.
Architectural Review Committees must recognize their job is not to impose their tastes on others, arbitrarily rendering decisions, especially about matters over which they have no knowledge or experience. The involvement of an AIA Architect is crucial to controlling a meddling committee. By way of example, (1) they objected to the porch on the basis of its location, believing it should be moved behind the garage where the only access was through the garage so as not to block the view of the kitchen bay window, and on the basis of the tile floor, because one of the ladies had someone slip and fall on the tile of her porch at the beach; (2) they objected to the roof color. With no guidelines on color, other than “harmony,” Frank purchased and installed architectural shingles in the same color as the replaced roof. (3)They objected to the rear bay window. Overlooking the rear porch, it was an angular bay window, rebuilt to match the boxed bay in the front (next picture) and to make the kitchen dining area more functional and spacious; (4) they objected to the removal of the back fence. It belonged to the homeowner association, was rotten and collapsing, half or more located on Frank’s property, located in an area where no one walks, it could not keep a dachshund in the yard much less a child and it provided no privacy. Ultimately, issues involving the roof, porch and bay window were resolved when an AIA Architect, at a meeting at the office of the HOA attorney sided with Frank. The issue of the fence is still unresolved and architectural review members are still making noise about the roof, which is as harmonious with the rest of the neighbourhood as any other house there.
The courts have made it clear that covenants are valid and enforceable provided there are clear policy guidelines establishing the overall standards. It is not enough to say that owners may not make changes to the exterior without first obtaining the written approval of the board or the architectural control committee. There must be in place specific guidelines, without which neither the unit owner nor the review board will have any objective standards by which to judge the proposed external change..
The following are valid defenses by a homeowner when the board tries to seek enforcement of the architectural standards:
Arbitrary and capricious actions have been taken. The architectural standards must be applied fairly and consistently, and in good faith. It is improper for a board or its architectural review committee to pick and choose in the enforcement of the covenants.
Delays, or "laches," have occurred. This means that the board has permitted a lengthy period of time to elapse before taking action against a unit owner. For example, one court ruled that a six-month delay in filing suit against an unauthorized fence barred the board from enforcing the covenants.
A waiver has been granted. Basically, if the board fails to enforce a covenant in the case of one homeowner in similar situations, it may be prohibited from enforcing the same standards against another homeowner.
There is a lesson here for buyers in a community subject to a homeowners association. First ask yourself if you mind surrendering decisions about the property exterior to strangers who may lack any regard for the proper role they play in those decisions. If the answer is no, then obtain copies of any and every document having any impact on architectural control. Find out who is on the committee and what are there qualification to be there. Learn whether there is any guidance by an AIA Architect, educated and qualified to do so. Perhaps the aggravation, animosity, and delay can be avoided
Walt Smith, Broker
Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage
803 622 5210