Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Shannon Zuchowski, administrative assistant at Ravenel Associates, has seen a lot of things happen - both good and bad - when dealing with the various home owners’ associations she manages across the Lowcountry.
Recently she witnessed a group of homeowners’ association board members and volunteers move a mountain.
Anyone who lives in a neighborhood with covenants and restrictions can attest to the random rule that doesn’t necessarily apply to their specific community.
Residents in Planter’s Pointe are no exception. But they took the bull by the horns and set out to review covenants and restrictions in search of language which might be unclear, contradictory, ambiguous or unenforceable.
They found 13 covenants and restrictions that needed amending. And after three years of getting the majority of the residents to sign off on those amendments, 12 were legally amended.
Zuchowski said that over the years her company has had several large properties like Planter’s Pointe hold annual meetings. And often they have trouble just meeting a quorum - even when it only required one signature on a proxy. “Generally, every year it will take three notices to even get a quorum,” she said.
So for elected officers and volunteers to go around an entire neighborhood in search of signatures from every person listed on every deed, and accomplish it, was miraculous.
The process was quite involved she said. From the start, volunteers formed a committee, with the blessing of the board, to begin scouring the pages of the covenants and restrictions.
Once they began that task, they quickly realized that one very important covenant must be changed before they could move forward with anything else. That meant changing the proxy requirement to ensure only one signature per deed was needed.
And to change that, they had to follow the very covenant they were trying to amend.
Once successful, the group got back to work, reading line by line, the entire document.
Once amendments were identified that needed tweaking, those were spelled out in a powerpoint that was then presented to residents as part of a series of educational sessions.
Again, they faced the task of actually getting people to those sessions.
The board turned to incentives to garnish attention. They offered five homeowners the chance to have their annual dues waived for one year.
This was successful, and ballots were obtained from attending homeowners. More incentives, such as $100 gift cards, drew in homeowners, curious about what all the fuss was over.
The ballots that were collected were then cross-referenced with the master deed list and those who did not attend received a visit from volunteers. Each visit last about 30 minutes. Volunteers truly reached out to homeowners, asking them their concerns.
Door to door they went until finally, three years later, they had the necessary votes to legalize their efforts.
“Most homeowners are not very involved in their homeowners’ associations,” Zuchowski said. “They pay their dues once year but the HOA does not affect their daily life.
Most are not overly conscious of the association and when it comes to amendments most think it is best not to get involved - particularly where they’re not too familiar.”
She explained that very rarely does anyone sit down and read the entire document; until perhaps they’ve been cited or fined for something.
So what these elected officers and volunteers accomplished is mostly unheard of.
“It is very tough to come by to get every owner to physically touch that one document. The fact that volunteers were willing to go out and spend their time that way is pretty impressive.”
The Planter’s Pointe Covenant Committee was chaired by Erni Moore. With the support of the homeowners’ association president Mark Valerio, the group began Feb. 8, 2010, and consisted of six other volunteers.
To amend the requirement of needing 75 percent of all lot owners to make an amendment, the volunteers visited 674 homes to receive the required 1,000 plus signatures.
Once that was approved a proposed amendment could then be ratified with approval of 67 percent of the lots - with one vote per lot.
By 2012, it would only take 455 yes votes to make any other changes.
According to Valerio, many amendments involved changing just a single word for better clarity and understanding. Moore said that some changes were made for safety purposes.
For example the HOA (rather than homeowner) has the responsibility for maintaining (including mowing around) pond slopes and appurtenant structures.
Some things were removed entirely in the spirit of fairness to all homeowners, such as special assessment requirements, Moore said.
Other amendments enabled homeowners to, themselves, select and install minor plantings or landscaping additions without facing fines and penalties if prior written approval is not received.
Valerio explained that idea was to give the homeowner a little more leeway in regard to decisions that shouldn’t have to go before a board, such as removing dead tress.
New amendments now allowed homeowners to put out garbage cans, recycle containers and yard debris the night before pick-up (which had been prohibited, but which many homeowners do anyway) for convenience.
Another change permits homeowners to park their passenger vehicles in their driveways regardless of the capacity of their garages.
They received a few “no” votes and were one shy of approval. But one mother, while cleaning out her son’s bookbag, found a ballot. It had been sent home with his teacher to give to his mother who had been collecting ballots. It was signed and dated correctly and just happened the be the “yes” vote they needed.
“People realized we put a lot of effort into this,” said Valerio. “We did this for all of the right reasons and so that these covenants and restrictions reflect the way we want to live. It allows the conformity we all signed up for when we signed on to live here as well as the individuality we all crave as people.”
And while the effort was time consuming and depended on the help of volunteers, it was relatively inexpensive considering the small legal and postage fees funded by the HOA.
Moore said there were times when discussion got heated and times when the committee disagreed.
“But we did not give up and we saw it to fruition. Our goal was to have people understand what they were voting for and to become involved in the process of self governance. We all agreed that these would be the rules we would live by when we moved into the neighborhood and we wanted residents to have their covenants and restrictions say what they wanted them to say,” Moore said.
Valerio and Moore agreed that if any lesson is learned from their effort it would be that this feat is doable. Valerio encourages elected officers in neighborhoods to make a similar effort when necessary, “as it is all worth it in the end.”