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Community Associations- Best Practices for Display of Holiday Cheer
As any parent or relative of school-age children knows, the period from Halloween through New Year’s is marked by a seemingly continuous string of holiday celebrations. Many of these holidays include a tradition of decorating homes with displays of individuality, creativity and holiday spirit. While holiday decorating can be a great way to build and maintain community spirit, there are potential pitfalls to consider as well. For instance, many communities have covenants which prohibit exterior decorations of any type without prior board or architectural committee approval. Yet, in our increasingly multicultural society, there are some holidays with which board or committee members may not always be so familiar. Must the board or architectural committee require every person wishing to have an outdoor holiday display apply for approval? Can certain decorations be denied based on the particular holiday? Are size restrictions and time limits permissible?
With this year’s holiday season already in full swing, many board and committee members find themselves in the midst of their own annual ritual – making the tough decisions about promulgating and enforcing rules regarding holiday displays. While there is no way to guarantee that the holiday season will be festive and controversy-free, here are some guiding principles that community associations should keep in mind when addressing covenants, rules and enforcement relating to holiday decorating:
(1) Always Follow Applicable Laws– While community associations are typically private, non-profit organizations, they are still bound by various state and federal housing laws. For instance, courts have determined that community associations are bound by the federal Fair Housing Act Amended of 1988 (FHAA), which prohibits discriminatory practices in housing. Because prohibitions or restrictions of some holiday displays, but not others, could be considered discriminatory on the basis of religion or ethnicity, care should be taken to enact and enforce rules regarding holiday displays in a fair and even-handed manner.
(2) Be Reasonable and be Consistent – Unless your community governing documents already require it, or there is an otherwise compelling reason to do so, don’t prohibit residents from decorating the exteriors of their homes for the holidays. Associations should adopt uniform rules and effectively communicate these rules to residents so everyone understands what they can and cannot display. If your association’s rules or governing documents do ban holiday decorations, it is essential to be consistent and ban all decorations and displays.
(3) Set Reasonable Limitations – It is reasonable and appropriate to regulate the amount of time that decorations may be displayed. Holiday decorations that remain displayed months after the holiday at issue are bound to create problems with neighbors and other residents. It is also reasonable to regulate the times of day that lights or other features may be illuminated so as to limit any nuisance to neighbors or safety issues.
(4) Don’t Quibble with Aesthetics – We all know some people are bound to stretch the definitions of “tasteful” decorating. However, as taste is subjective, attempts to regulate it invite challenges. If the board or architectural committee finds they are frequently arguing over the bounds of taste, it may be time to re-examine your rules regarding decorations or perhaps prohibit them all together.
(5) Exercise Extreme Caution for Common Elements – While it is generally good policy to allow residents to decorate their own homes, it is perfectly acceptable to ban or severely restrict decoration of limited or general common elements. Associations have the obligation to maintain common (and often) limited common elements, and maintenance generally means restricting activities that could cause damage. Associations that do choose to decorate common areas, such as clubhouses or lobbies, should avoid overtly religious displays or to take extra care to give equal treatment to all religious or cultural affiliations.
As with all things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It is important to make your holiday decorating rules fair, reasonable and even-handed. Concentrate on what is most important: location, time and place, size and safety, but not content or aesthetic appeal. Setting up reasonable rules and restrictions for holiday displays now will minimize the probability of unnecessary disputes and go a long way toward ensuring a joyous and trouble-free holiday season.
By Chuck Mortimer
Shareholder with Seattle law firm Levy - von Beck & Associates, P.S.