For those who live in one of Fairfax County’s 1500-plus homeowner or condo associations, a recent piece of legislation in the General Assembly sparked an intense debate about the rules of suburban living.
House Bill 791, co-sponsored by Fairfax Dels. Jim LeMunyon (R-Dist. 67) and Mark Sickles (D-Dist. 43), started out as a noble attempt to reduce the growing number of disputes — and court cases — between HOA boards and residents.
It’s a legitimate concern, and we generally applaud any effort to rein in a culture that’s become far too litigious. Most HOAs will tell you the last thing they want is to go to court, but it happens with alarming frequency. In fact, it’s safe to say most HOA boards in Fairfax County have been entangled in a legal dispute of some kind in the past three years. Whether residents know it or not, each of those disputes takes money out of their own pocket and compromises the value of their homes.
Under current laws, homeowner associations in Virginia can fine members only if the community’s original charter contained a fining provision. In Fairfax County, the number of HOAs that fall under that umbrella is relatively small.
HB 791, in its original form, would have armed HOA boards with a bigger hammer. The version of the bill that passed the House of Delegates would have allowed HOAs with charters that don’t specify one way or another to issue fines up to the maximum allowed under state law, or to revoke privileges. The maximum fine is $50 for a single offense, or $10 per day for up to 90 days for ongoing violations.
Nobody here argues that most HOA boards comprise responsible, civic-minded people who have the best interests of their communities at heart. We also understand the frustration a board member must feel after nine letters to a property owner with multiple covenant violations go ignored for months, if not years, on end.
That said, granting a part-time, volunteer homeowner board the power to assess and collect fines — not to mention cut off electricity or attach a lien against a property — isn’t prudent on any level. Those same powers aren’t even shared by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors or town councils in Vienna and Herndon.
Fortunately, the Senate’s version of the bill did not extend the ability to issue fines to HOAs that don’t already have that power, but did include language stating that associations may amend their rules as outlined in their governing documents.
That was a solid compromise, and properly illustrates how our legislative system should be working.