December 4, 2009

Conflicting Covenants Result in Victory for Owner in Roof Litigation

The covenants that govern condominium and homeowners associations sometimes contain provisions that are inconsistent, and those imperfections can spark disagreements about board decisions and costly litigation. The Washington Court of Appeals issued an unpublished opinion last month that discussed the problem of conflicting covenants in a homeowners association. The owners prevail over the association in that case, and the reason why might surprise you.

In 2003, James and Janice Geary purchased a lot in the Flying H Ranch subdivision in Buckley, Washington. In late 2005, their house’s composition roof began to leak. The Gearys learned that their house could not support the tile roofing material permitted by the covenants. Another composition roof appeared to them to be the best available option. The Gearys’ proposal to the architectural control committee was rejected because the covenants do not allow composition roofs. The Gearys installed a composition roof anyway. The Flying H Ranch Homeowners’ Association filed a lawsuit against them nine months later.

Flying H Ranch’s covenants state that construction does not require committee approval and complies with the covenants if the association has not started a lawsuit by the time of its completion. However, the covenants also provide for an automatic $10 per day fine on lots that violate the covenants. The trial court concluded that these two provisions contradict each other and make the meaning of the covenants unclear. Since the developer (the source of the uncertainty) was actively involved in this dispute, the trial court strictly interpreted the covenants in the Gearys’ favor. The appellate court agreed with this result, but it also pointed out that covenants are more liberally interpreted in favor of restrictions once developers are no longer involved.

The Geary case demonstrates how inconsistencies in covenants can disrupt enforcement efforts. Identifying conflicting provisions and amending the covenants to fix those problems can prevent many headaches down the road. This case also shows how important it is for boards to be familiar with the portions of the covenants that are time sensitive.