Articles Posted in Community Amenities, Common Elements

At the start of summer, associations should evaluate their pool rules and procedures in addition to conducting all of the necessary inspections of their pools, spas and related equipment.

With the help of qualified professionals, the inspections should include all pools and pool equipment as well as the surrounding amenities, including gates, fences, signs, locker rooms, etc.

Association pool rules should focus on health and safety, and should avoid focusing on classes of protected persons, particularly families with children.  Making the activities of children the focus of prohibitory rules can substantially increase the potential that an association will receive a complaint alleging discriminatory conduct under federal, state and local fair housing laws.  Even prohibiting something as seemingly innocuous as “pool toys” could be deemed discriminatory, if directed specifically at children, rather than at all persons.

Likewise, unless your community avails itself of the Housing for Older Persons exemption to the anti-discrimination provisions of the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, designating “adults only” pools or use times may give rise to FHA violations.  Furthermore, some courts have found that not permitting children access to pools and other amenities unless accompanied by parents could also give rise to FHA violations.

pool-rulesSome of the most common safety-related rules include:

  • No running.
  • No glass containers.
  • No diving in shallow areas.
  • No pushing, horseplay, roughhousing, or dunking.
  • No smoking and/or tobacco products in the pool area.

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The recent report by Local 10 News (WPLG-ABC) in South Florida about a Hollywood, Fla. condominium association that is considering filing a lawsuit against the maker of the Pokémon Go game app came as no surprise to our firm’s community association attorneys.  We are now starting to hear from many of our condominium and homeowners association clients about their distress regarding the nuisances and potential security and liability issues that are arising as a result of the game and its players.

The station reports that the condominium association for the Villas of Positano is considering legal action to combat the throngs of Pokémon Go players who flock to the beachside building in the early morning hours.

The issue for the property is that it is a “PokeStop” for the popular game, meaning that the virtual monsters which the players are trying to find can be found at the entrance to the property that adjoins the public boardwalk along the beach.  Rare Pokémon monsters are released at midnight Pacific Time, so at 3 a.m. EST hundreds of players make their way to the condominium’s doorstep.

The property manager is quoted in the report indicating that the players urinate in the bushes in the property, litter and make a great deal of noise, which disturbs many of the residents.

The report indicates that Hollywood police are aware of the problem, but they have said that those who remain on the boardwalk and do not cause a disturbance are not breaking the law.  However, unfortunately for the association, many of the players are infiltrating its property in their search for the virtual characters.

The association is considering joining a class-action lawsuit or filing one of its own because the game’s maker has yet to remove its location as a PokeStop.

In addition to the problems arising from nonresidents, our firm’s other attorneys and I have been made aware that there are also issues arising caused by residents and their guests who are gallivanting through the hallways and common areas at all hours while playing.  The game features “lure modules” and virtual gyms to encourage players to meet and wage battles with their Pokémon, so players are interrupting their searches to congregate and play it together in the common areas.

Boards of directors are now beginning to address these issues.  Many are starting by issuing a bulletin to all of the owners, residents and staff reminding them that excessive noise in any of the common areas – including from Pokémon Go players – creates nuisances that are in violation of association rules, and building management/security should be contacted if any such nuisances arise so that immediate action may be taken.

Management, security and valet staff are also being tasked to maintain a high level of vigilance for nonresident players attempting to infiltrate the property as well as for residents and their guests creating disturbances while they are playing.  Other considerations include restricting access to lobbies and common areas during nighttime, checking to make sure the association has sufficient insurance coverage, and even adopting rules governing the times of day that the game (and others like it which are sure to come) can be played in the common areas.

Click here to watch the report in the station’s website.

Many condominium associations are still unaware about an upcoming deadline that requires high-rise condominium towers to have automatic fire sprinkler or Engineered Life Safety Systems in place by December 31, 2019. However, it is imperative that both property managers and boards of directors familiarize themselves with the requirements established in the applicable sections of the Florida Fire Prevention Code (FFPC) in order to avoid having to pay hefty fines for not complying with the law.

The FFPC mandates that all buildings greater than 75 feet in height — measured from the lowest level of fire department access to the floor of the highest occupiable level — be protected throughout by an approved and supervised automatic sprinkler system no later than December 31, 2019, unless the building already has an approved Engineered Life Safety System (ELSS).

Though the Florida law requires an automatic fire sprinkler system or ELSS to be in place by the end of the year, the Florida Condominium Act includes an exception that allows condos the ability to “opt-out” of having to install a complete automatic fire sprinkler system. The act states that should a Florida condominium decide that its best option is to opt-out of the requirement, it must do so by December 31, 2016.

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Every four years, as presidential elections heat up, condominium and homeowners association communities throughout Florida are faced with the issue of political signs being posted in front yards, on balconies, in windows and on and around the common areas.  Association attorneys are often consulted, and most would advise associations to be extremely careful with how they create and enforce restrictions that prohibit political expression.

Most associations’ governing documents include restrictions that prohibit residents from posting signs anywhere on the unit or the property.  Political signs, however, give rise to issues of freedom of speech, which is protected by the First Amendment.

The key for associations to remember is that restrictions on freedom of speech under the First Amendment apply only in governmental or public settings, so community associations, as private non-governmental entities, are allowed to restrict signage, including political signs, in accordance with their corresponding state law.  Some states have enacted legislation specifically addressing the issue, but Florida has not and neither has the state’s Supreme Court addressed the issue specifically.

psigns

As a result, Florida’s associations are able to enact and/or enforce rules and restrictions governing the display of political signs by their members, but they are cautioned to do so very judiciously and under the watchful guidance of highly experienced association legal counsel.

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Maintaining the common elements and areas is one of the primary functions and responsibilities of community associations.  Last year’s ruling by the Seventh Judicial Circuit Court’s Appellate Division illustrates the potential consequences that may arise in the event an association does not adequately address complaints by unit owners regarding nuisances resulting from the improper maintenance of the common elements.

In the case of Harbor View Daytona Condominium Association v. Katherine Strachan and John F. Strachan, the Strachans had complained to the association for several years of drainage back-flow plumbing problems causing black, soapy water to back up into the toilets, showers and sinks of their first-floor unit.

One of the plumbers who performed work at the condominium building during its original construction testified in depositions that when Harbor View converted from rental apartments to a condominium, washing machines were added to the individual units.  While most of these washing machines connect to a drainpipe dedicated exclusively to them, the washing machines on the eighth floor penthouse level drain into pipes to which kitchen sinks from lower units are also connected.

Harbor View Condominium

In this particular case, the washing machine from unit 808 is the only one that drains into the kitchen sink line that serves the Strachans’ unit.  According to the plumber’s testimony, Harbor View’s plumbing system was not designed to accommodate new high-efficiency washing machines that discharge water at a higher rate of speed than older machines, and in his opinion, unit 808’s high-efficiency washing machine is causing the plumbing problem.

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The start of a new year represents a slew of new beginnings for most community associations. From holding annual elections to the preparation of annual budgets, the first quarter of the year marks a pivotal time for many associations. With that comes a great deal of confusion, particularly with regard to the proper way to fund reserves.

Contrary to common misconceptions, Florida Statutes require that associations must present a fully funded reserve to their fellow unit owners. An association may also present to the membership the option of either waiving reserves, or funding reserves less than fully, but it is not required to do so.

Reserves are used by associations to fund capital expenditures and items of deferred maintenance. Some reserve categories are mandatory (e.g., roofing, painting, paving, and any item expected to cost in excess of $10,000), while others are discretionary (e.g., insurance premiums). However, once a reserve fund is established, the monies dedicated to each category, including interest, may only be used for that category (unless the membership approves an alternate use).

According to Chapter 718.112(2)(f) of Florida Statutes, Florida condos must fully fund reserve accounts for capital expenditures and deferred maintenance. The amount to be reserved must be computed using a formula based upon the estimated remaining useful life and estimated replacement cost or deferred maintenance expense of each reserve item.

Now, what happens if once presented with a fully funded reserve account the association becomes interested in waiving or reducing all or specific reserve items? A vote must occur. Not only must a quorum be established in order for voting to take place, but a majority of the owners must be present either in person or by proxy in order to approve any changes.

Keep in mind that it is possible that certain owners will be voting via limited proxies. Should that be the case, special language must be included on the face of the proxy ballot, in capitalized, bold lettering, that should read as follows: WAIVING OF RESERVES, IN WHOLE OR IN PART, OR ALLOWING ALTERNATIVE USES OF EXISTING RESERVES MAY RESULT IN UNIT OWNER LIABILITY FOR PAYMENT OF UNANTICIPATED SPECIAL ASSESSMENTS REGARDING THOSE ITEMS.

Should a majority of the quorum of members not agree to waive or reduce the reserve account, then the association is responsible for fully funding the account. Whatever your association decides, keep in mind that the decision is only good for the particular year in question, and the whole process will have to be done again on the following year.

Constant new development of residential and mixed-use towers can be seen all over South Florida, with new projects being announced constantly. The construction of these new towers evokes buyers to ask themselves: What is better, new or old? The answer to that question is triggering existing community associations to spruce up their communities by giving them a facelift in an effort to stay competitive.

With the intention of luring buyers to choose new over old, newer buildings are offering luxuries such as: sleek and polished designs, newer amenities, revolutionized living technology and the idea of being the first to live in a space that has not yet been inhabited. Add-ons such as state of the art fitness centers, exclusive resident spa services and five-star concierge and building services are making the choice of selecting new construction more appealing. However, this option commonly comes with a heavier price tag and some unexpected issues. A few draw-backs such as unforeseen construction delays and unknown kinks arising after construction are common issues owners face when selecting new construction. They also face the infamous turnover phase — a time that could be very difficult for newly established community associations if they lack the right experts to guide them through the process. These challenges have prompted older towers to improve their buildings with hopes of enticing these buyers to look their way.

pool deck renovation.jpgOlder buildings are using the risks buyers face when purchasing new construction to their benefit. Towers over three years old are labeling themselves “established,” having already dealt with most, if not all, construction defects found after the developer turned over control. They also highlight the fact that their boards are more seasoned, helping buyers feel like they are placing their investment in knowledgeable hands. Also, construction delays would never be an issue since these units are all move-in ready. In addition to highlighting some of the benefits that come with moving into an established community, many older condo towers are also making the effort in renovating their spaces to update their design to match the designs offered in newer construction. Some have gone as far as converting racquetball courts into multi-purpose rooms, yoga rooms, arts and crafts rooms and additional fitness centers. Simply by turning something old into something almost-new, these towers are keeping up with newer condos and competing at a price level that tends to be much more affordable, while still offering a similar style of living. With this in mind, the boards of these older buildings should be cautioned that their association’s governing documents may prevent some of the proposed changes, and that many alterations and improvements must be approved by the association membership. Accordingly, it is advisable for community association counsel to be involved in the planning of any such changes.

It will be interesting to see what buyers will choose once most of these towers are finalized. Our firm’s community association attorneys have assisted numerous clients with redesign projects throughout the years. We write in this blog about important legal and administrative issues affecting associations in Florida, and we encourage association directors, members and property managers to enter their email address in the subscription box at the top right of the blog in order to automatically receive all of our future articles.

An arbitration decision rendered earlier this year by the State of Florida Division of Condominiums involving a dispute over alterations approved by a condominium board without a prior meeting and vote of the unit owners did not surprise our firm’s community association attorneys. We often find ourselves reminding association directors and property managers that the changes they are considering – albeit seemingly minor in nature – could be among those changes that are considered “material alterations” requiring approval by the membership.

While what constitutes a “material” alteration is not always clear, the rule of thumb is that if it changes the color, form, shape, elements or specifications from the original design or plan, or existing condition, in such a manner as to appreciably affect or influence its function, use, or appearance, then it is material. And, while the additional costs and time commitments that the approval process entails can be considered a bit ponderous, this recent decision serves as an important reminder of the potentially significant economic repercussions of forgoing the vote.

The case involved alterations that were approved by the Nine Island Avenue Condominium Association board of directors, which included changes and improvements to the pool deck furniture including cushions and fixtures, trellis, observation deck, pool steps and ladder, landscaping, the color of the paint in the koi pond, and the removal of a water filtration system. pool deck renovation.jpg After a hearing that took two full days and included a number of witnesses and experts for both the unit-owner petitioner, Ms. Jacqueline Simkin, and the association, the arbitrator found in favor of the unit owner and concluded that prior approval by the unit owners was required for practically every single alteration that had been made at the property.

The order concludes:

“Unless the alteration is approved by 66 2/3% of the unit owners, no later than December 31, 2014, the Association shall:

a. Return the color of the recreation deck waterways and curbing to the original light gray, and return the color scheme of the deck furnishings to original grey-blue, or something substantially similar;

b. Rebuild the trellises to the original footprint, design intent, appearance, and natural weathered wood finish, subject to current code requirements;

c. Return the gazebo to its original natural weathered wood finish;

d. Rebuild the wooden observation deck over the waterway;

e. Replace the pool egress ladders with ladders substantially similar to original, such that the steps extend farther down into the water and can be used as a means of egress from the pool by unit owners;

f. Return the entrance drive landscaping to its original, or substantially similar, condition; and
g. Repair or replace the building water filtration system with a comparable system utilizing current technology.”

Depending on how the final vote of the members turns out, the association may be facing significant expenses in order to return some or all of these elements to their original condition prior to the alterations being completed. These expenses, not to mention the potentially contentious nature of the meetings that will lead up to the vote as a result of this significant lapse in judgment, will certainly prove to be more costly and difficult for the association than the vote that it should have undertaken prior to moving forward with the alterations. Not to mention the attorneys fees and costs incurred by the association in defending this proceeding – and the unit owner’s attorneys fees and costs which the association will be responsible to reimburse.

This costly lesson comes free of charge to all other Florida condominium association boards of directors that are considering moving forward with what potentially may be considered a “material alteration” without obtaining prior membership approval as required by the Condominium Act. Bypassing the approval process is simply not worth the financial risk, as this condominium association learned the hard way.

With the spike in gasoline prices over the last five years, plug-in electric vehicles (PEV) are becoming increasingly popular, and auto industry analysts predict that Florida will be among the leading states in the country for PEVs. For those who reside in a single-family home, plugging in these vehicles for overnight charging presents little difficulty, however the challenges of charging them overnight can be significant for someone who lives in a condominium. Our firm has already had several condominium association clients inquire about their responsibilities and options for accommodating these cars, and their approaches toward finding a solution can vary a great deal.

There are three different levels of PEV charging stations. A level one charging station requires a standard 110-volt household outlet and takes anywhere from 12 to 20 hours for a full charge. A level two charging station uses a 220-volt outlet – such as those that are used for large kitchen appliances, water heaters and washer/dryers – and is two to four times faster than a level 1. A level 3 charging station is the most expensive type of charging station costing in the range of $50,000 and therefore not likely to be considered by most associations.

Due to the abundance of standard 110-volt outlets coupled with the low cost of installation, a level one charging station would seem to be the easiest to deploy and use, and many condominiums may be able to accommodate PEVs simply by using existing outlets or installing new ones in the parking garage.

carchrg2.jpgAs PEVs become more and more popular however, associations may want to consider installing a level 2 charging station in order to make the property more appealing to their current and future unit owners with electric cars. The installation cost for level 2 charging stations averages around $2,000 for basic models and, in addition to the faster charge times of four to eight hours for a full charge, some of the more advanced level 2 charging stations also feature retractable or suspended cords, usage tracking and billing capabilities, and the ability to charge up to four cars at once.

There are several challenges for condominium associations when dealing with these charging stations. First, as we know, parking spaces are hot commodities in condominiums. Therefore, determining the most beneficial location for installing a level 2 charging station could present an issue for a condominium, as could a request for the installation of additional level 1 outlets throughout a parking garage. Generally, there is nothing in a condominium’s governing documents that would obligate an association to equip a parking space with a separate electrical outlet. However, because most board’s are empowered to approve an owner’s request to install one (since residential unit owners cannot usually make any additions, alterations or improvements in or to the common elements without the prior consent of the board), the next issue is overcoming the location. Are there any common element areas where a station could be installed? Will the association have to ask owners to transfer, swap or relocate parking spaces? Does the association have the power to require owners to swap or transfer their parking spaces? These are all questions that must be answered before a condominium can make a determination as to what type of charger to install and where to put it.

Additionally, associations should be advised that utility costs incurred by an individual owner through the use of the electrical outlet would not constitute a common expense for which the association and, therefore, all the unit owners would be responsible. Therefore, associations should require that the utility costs for the electrical outlet be separately metered and billed directly to the unit owner. FPL can add sub-meters for these outlets in order for the association to bill the PEV owners for the electricity that their vehicles consume. FPL estimates that electric bills will go up by approximately $34 per month in order to charge a PEV enough to drive 1,000 miles per month. The company offers some excellent information and resources for condominium associations that are considering their options for accommodating PEVs at www.fpl.com/electricvehicles, and questions can also be sent to electric-vehicles@fpl.com.

Again, while the location of such a station in the parking garage and the allocation of parking spaces around it for PEVs present certain obstacles for associations, the added benefit and marketability of the property to PEV owners could easily outweigh these financial and administrative burdens. And, as the usage of PEVs continues to grow, progressive-minded associations that embrace this new technology could gain a significant marketing edge by helping their unit owners to go green and drive electric.

Many of the condominiums and condo-hotels in South Florida offer valet parking for the convenience of their residents and guests. With so many gatherings and celebrations taking place at these properties, the valet companies that provide these services sometimes face the difficult situation of whether to provide an individual who is clearly intoxicated with their vehicle for them to drive. The question then arises: Are the valets legally liable for any incidents resulting from visibly intoxicated drivers to whom they have returned vehicles?

The recent ruling by Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal in the case of Debbie Weber v. Marino Parking Systems, Inc. provides some clarity for valet companies in this situation. The court upheld the lower court’s dismissal of the lawsuit, which was filed on the grounds of wrongful death by Weber against the valet company after it returned the vehicle to an obviously intoxicated driver who then got into accident that caused the tragic death of his passenger, the plaintiff’s daughter.

valet.jpgThe court ruled that a valet parking service does not owe a duty to third parties to refrain from returning a vehicle to an obviously intoxicated driver. In its ruling, the court acknowledged that cars, just like firearms, are dangerous instruments, but unlike gun sellers, a valet is not acting as a seller, lessor, donor, lender or bailor in providing its services. Instead, it serves as a bailee, which is defined as one who holds property for another. Bailees, the court concludes, do not have a superior right to control the property, which means that valets have no discretion to refuse to return the vehicle without potentially being liable for a conversion.

While this ruling does seem to shield the valet parking service providers from legal liability in these cases, there are other measures that the valet companies and the condominiums and condo-hotels which retain them can and should take to dissuade intoxicated individuals from demanding their vehicles and driving off. These include hiring off-duty uniformed police officers to provide on-site security for large parties and special celebrations, and coordinating with local taxi companies to have taxis available for these events. The horrors of the consequences of drunk driving are too serious to ignore, and we encourage valet companies and the properties that they serve to take all of the precautions at their disposal to avoid enabling intoxicated individuals from getting behind the wheel.