A recent homeowners association case pitted the association’s board against Tigger. Yes, that Tigger – the trusty friend of Winnie the Pooh, Christopher Robin and the rest of the Hundred Acre Woods. Actually, the problem was a mailbox that was shaped like Tigger. In this case, the Association’s Architectural Guidelines bounced the Tigger mailbox right of the neighborhood.
The community in question had fairly typical Architectural Guidelines. The Declaration of the community provided that the Board needed to approve all installation, construction or alterations of any “decks, fences, permanent play equipment, ledges, pools, storage tanks, accessory buildings, or any other structures on the lot.” The Guidelines also provided that any proposed modifications need to be compatible with the architectural character and design of the community. The list of items specifically requiring approval did not include “mailboxes.”
One of the unit owners replaced their standard mailbox with a new mailbox that looked like Tigger. The Association determined the mailbox violated the Architectural Review Guidelines and instructed the unit owners to remove it. The unit owners refused, and five years of litigation ensued.
The unit owners argued two points. The first was that the Board had no authority to approve a mailbox, because “mailbox” was not specifically included in the Declaration. The Court decided that a mailbox was a “structure” that required approval of the Board. To reach this conclusion, the Court looked at the dictionary for the ordinary meaning of the word structure. They found that structure was “any construction, production, or piece of work artificially built up or composed of parts purposely joined together.” (quoting Black’s Law Dictionary, 8th Edition 2004)
Next, the unit owners argued that the Tigger mailbox was compatible with the architectural standards of the community. The Association’s President testified that the color scheme of the Tigger mailbox was different from the home and the rest of the community. The Court determined this was sufficient evidence for the Board to determine the mailbox was not permitted under the Architectural Guidelines.
This ruling reinforces a Board’s authority to enforce its Declaration and Rules and Regulations. First, the Declaration required approval for any change in the appearance of the lot. The Court said that the list of items requiring approval were examples, and not an exhaustive list. Because the Declaration said “or other structures” the Board’s authority encompassed everything that a unit owner might do on their lot. Second, the Court decided that the Board had “broad discretion to determine what violates the architectural design of the community.” Most Association Boards and residents have a pretty good idea that a Tigger mailbox does not match the rest of the community – unless you live outside of Disney. All the Board needed to provide was a “rational basis for determining that the Tigger mailbox did not comply with the Architectural Standards of the community.” It is good news that Pennsylvania Courts continue to allow Boards to use their reasonable discretion when enforcing the Rules and Regulations, even if the violation is bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy and fun, fun, fun, fun, fun.
Aaron Marines is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his law degree from Widener University and practices in a variety of areas including Business, Commercial Real Estate, Land Use, Land Planning and Zoning matters.
Photo credit: Pixabay