June 2, 2010

Goat Dispute Highlights Best Practices for Covenant Enforcement

A North Carolina couple has won a legal battle with their homeowners association to keep two Nigerian dwarf goats named Fred and Barney in their yard. The association’s covenants state as follows: "No animals, livestock or poultry of any kind shall be raised, bred or kept on any lot except that horses, dogs, cats and other pets may be kept provided they are not kept, bred, or maintained for any commercial purposes." Several neighbors complained to the board about the smell and noise caused by the goats, so the board ordered the owners to remove them. Litigation ensued, and a judge eventually ruled that Fred and Barney should be permitted to stay because they are pets.

As the cliché goes, life is not black and white. Gray is a popular color in the world of law. Many covenants can be reasonably interpreted in more than one way. Boards should make an effort to play devil’s advocate and view covenants from owners’ perspectives before issuing demands or initiating litigation.

Another lesson that can be gleaned from this story is that it is sometimes better to focus on minimizing the negative effects of a disputed behavior rather than attempting to end that behavior. For example, it may be possible to address the goat odor issue by requiring more frequent bathing and waste removal. It may also be possible to address the goat noise issue by restricting them to certain portions of the property. Boards should always be on the lookout for creative approaches that lead to win-win solutions.