November 20, 2009

Recent Washington Case Illustrates Rule Enforcement Pitfalls

The Washington Court of Appeals filed an unpublished opinion last week in a case involving a community association. This opinion provides valuable guidance regarding enforcement of governing documents and the limits of rule-making authority.

Gloria Holcomb purchased an undeveloped lot in Kitsap County that was subject to restrictive covenants. The covenants established an architectural control committee and prohibited building on the lots without written approval from the committee. However, the covenants also stated that the committee’s written approval was not required if the committee did not approve or disapprove a project within 30 days after construction plans had been submitted to it.

Ms. Holcomb planned to build her retirement home on the undeveloped lot. She submitted construction plans to the committee in May of 2006. In June and July of 2006, the committee requested more detailed plans in accordance with a stricter procedure recently enacted by the committee. Ms. Holcomb did not provide more detailed plans, and eventually abandoned the project. She then sued the community association, claiming that it violated the covenants by preventing her from proceeding with the project. The trial court ruled in favor of the association, and Ms. Holcomb appealed.

The appellate court’s opinion instructs the trial court to reconsider the case and determine whether the committee violated the covenants by unreasonably delaying approval of her construction project. If the committee is found to have acted improperly, Ms. Holcomb will be awarded damages that naturally flowed from the committee’s misconduct, which in this case could exceed $50,000. This serves as a reminder to boards and committees that failure to reasonably enforce the governing documents can result in liability.

During the trial court’s initial consideration of this case, it significantly concluded that the stricter procedure adopted by the committee was unenforceable because it conflicted with the covenants. The appellate court agreed that the committee exceeded its authority. This serves as a reminder to boards and committees that the rules they enact must be consistent with the association’s declaration or covenants.