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By: Nicole Graham
Piling the family in the car to drive through the neighborhood and see holiday displays is a time-honored tradition. With Halloween and the winter holiday season quickly approaching it is a good time to review the HOA’s guidelines on exterior, seasonal décor. Costly disputes between the HOA and an overly-festive homeowner may be avoided with clearly-expressed, seasonal guidelines that do not go beyond the scope of the HOA’s authority.
In Sainani v. Belmont Glen Homeowners Ass’n., 831 S.E.2d 662 (VA 2019), a fight over two strings of holiday lights between an HOA and homeowners went up to the Supreme Court of Virginia. The seasonal guidelines were intended to promote harmony in the community; avoid discourteous and unsafe conditions affecting property values; to avoid religious issues in the community; and to avoid the prolonged display of lights and decorations outside the respective holiday. The seasonal guidelines permitted “tasteful special decorative objects and lighting that are consistent with recognized Federal Holidays, Religious Holidays, Valentine’s Day and Halloween” for a specific length of time. The guidelines further required decorative lights be turned off by midnight each evening.
One home in the community displayed a string of lights on its front door and another string of lights on the railing along the back-deck in celebration of several Hindu, Sindhi, and Sikh religious holidays throughout the year. The HOA sent the homeowners letters outlining their violation of the seasonal guidelines. The homeowners did not respond. A hearing was held. The homeowners did not appear. The review board who oversaw the hearing imposed a $10 per day fine for each day the violations went uncorrected for a period of up to 90 days. The homeowners did not correct the violations or otherwise respond. Litigation ensued.
The homeowners argued the seasonal guidelines exceeded the HOA’s authority under its declaration of restrictive covenants and were thus unenforceable. The HOA claimed the seasonal guidelines were authorized by the declaration of restrictive covenants governing the community.
The Virginia Supreme Court sided with the homeowners and found the HOA’s justification for the seasonal guidelines was not reasonably related to any restrictive covenant and their enforcement was, therefore, arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable. The Court noted that restrictive covenants are to be construed most strictly against the grantor and persons seeking to enforce them, and substantial doubt or ambiguity is to be resolved in favor of the free use of property and against restrictions. The Court found none of the covenants in the declaration could be construed to authorize the seasonal guidelines. The only restrictive covenant that directly referenced exterior lighting was inapplicable because it merely prohibited directing exterior lighting outside the boundaries of the lot and causing any adverse visual impact to adjacent lots, whether by location, wattage or other features. The seasonal guidelines did not mention “adverse visual impact” and did not regulate location, wattage or other features. The seasonal guidelines only regulated the dates and number of days during which the residents may display decorative lighting. The Court concluded the seasonal guidelines exceeded the scope of the exterior-lighting covenant.
Both parties incurred far more in attorneys’ fees and costs than the $900.00 imposed by the HOA before the case was finally concluded. At the trial court level, the HOA had incurred approximately $40,000.00 in attorneys’ fees and costs to fight over two strings of lights it did not have the authority to regulate. For further information or questions, please contact Nicole Graham at [email protected].