Vail Daily column: HOAs: One big, unhappy family
March 19, 2013
Few are the residents of the Vail Valley who are not subject to the rule of that much maligned and misunderstood body: the homeowners’ association. Experiences with HOAs can vary widely, depending in large part on perspective. For many, the HOA is a purely benevolent entity that makes sure that the snow is plowed and that crazy lady does not build a sculpture out of discarded cat food cans in her front yard. But from evidence both empirical and anecdotal (though thankfully, not personal), I have gleaned that HOAs are not always viewed in the most sanguine light.The homeowners’ association is the most local and direct form of governance. Because it regulates and benefits one’s home (and sometimes, business), its actions are intensely personal. Unsurprisingly, this scenario can beget vicious internecine conflict. With the exception of divorce cases, homeowners’ association disputes are the most brutal, and often the most petty. In tenor and topic they can be eerily similar to playground spats. Certainly, there are valid and worthy issues about which HOAs fight, but too frequently they feature one owner complaining that a neighbor painted a wall in eggshell instead of cream or that a deck is an inch too wide. Caught in the middle of these disputes are the poor souls who comprise the board of directors. Being an HOA board member is a primarily thankless job that subjects one to the scorn and rarely the praise of the constituents. Volunteering to run a nonprofit entity is a noble act and those that do it are, with limited exception, kind people who have their neighbors’ best interests at heart. They operate on a limited budget that is dependent on the full intake of dues from people who do not want to pay them. Board members must police the actions of their owners, which is not a role that most cherish. A seat on the board can be incredibly time-consuming, with a litany of meetings to attend and correspondence in which to partake. As with a marriage, creating and maintaining a spirit of goodwill in a community is a delicate task that can go awry for any number of reasons on the spectrum from nuclear to nuanced. A small slight, real or perceived, can fester. Soon, neighbors that once had dinner at each other’s houses are no longer on speaking terms and looking for a reason to report each other to the board. Or, a certain budget decision of the board causes an owner to feel that favorites are being played and each subsequent board action is met with skepticism or outright hostility and threats of litigation. A board member might live next door to an owner who refuses to or is unable to pay dues. When collection litigation becomes necessary in order to recoup the needed funds for the association, the neighborly relationship will get awkward quickly. These challenges are compounded by the transient and/or resort nature of the Vail Valley. It is hard to build relationships between owners that live the majority of their lives elsewhere. There are certain key strategies to prevent these negative, distracting and costly community conflicts. For an HOA board, transparency and consensus are paramount. This does not require that every single minute detail of governance be shared, but it is a good idea to establish effective and frequent lines of communication to the owners, whether it be through a constantly updated HOA website or regular e-mail blasts. Similarly, unanimity will never be possible, but it is a good idea to gauge the mood of the association before embarking on major actions. These strategies will help ensure that owners feel that they are part of the process instead of in opposition to it. From the owners side, the most effective prophylactic may very well be a lot of deep breathing. Life is too short to get wound up about minor details. When the details are more than minor, approaching the conflict with an open mind and a clear, calm message is a good start. Ranting and prejudgment will only serve to escalate the situation, which is an outcome that can only benefit the lawyers. While I very much enjoy working to resolve disputes on behalf of my HOA clients, it would be better for everyone if there was no conflict to resolve.T.J. Voboril is a partner with Thompson, Brownlee & Voboril, LLC, a local boutique civil litigation firm, and the owner/mediator at Voice Of Reason Dispute Resolution. For more information, contact Voboril at 970-306-6456, firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit http://www.thompsonbrownlee.com.