A homeowner association’s seasonal decoration guidelines exceeded its declaration of restrictive covenants and are thus unenforceable. The circuit court’s judgment, which upheld fines imposed against appellant property owners for violating the guidelines, and which awarded attorney fees and costs, is reversed.
Guidelines and covenants
The Belmont Glen Homeowners Association adopted seasonal decoration guidelines in 2014, which permit “‘tasteful special decorative objects and lighting that are consistent with recognized Federal Holidays, Religious Holidays, Valentine’s Day and Halloween’ for a specific length of time for four holidays: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Winter Holidays, and the Fourth of July.”
Homeowners can apply for HOA approval to display decorations for 11 days for other holidays but are limited to two applications each year. Decorative lights must be turned off by midnight.
The HOA’s 2014 amended declaration of restrictive covenants contain several provisions that the HOA relies upon to issue the seasonal guidelines. Article IX, Section 3 bans “noxious or offensive activity” or anything that “is or may become an annoyance or nuisance to the neighborhood.”
Paragraph C under the nuisance section provides that no exterior lighting on a lot can be directed beyond the lot boundaries and bans any exterior lighting that has an adverse visual impact “by location, wattage or other features” on adjacent lots, as determined by the HOA’s architectural review board (ARB).
The appellants, SanJay and Sona Sainani, received multiple violation letters from the HOA between December 2013 and February 2016 for use of holiday lighting. They put lights on their front door and deck railing to celebrate several Hindu, Sindi and Sikh religious holidays.
The Sainanis did not respond to the letters or correct the violations. Eventually, the ARB held a hearing, which the Sainanis did not attend. The ARB imposed a $10 per day fine for uncorrected violations. After another round of violation letters and another hearing, which the Sainanis did not attend, the ARB imposed additional fines and suspended their HOA voting privileges and use of HOA facilities.
A third hearing was scheduled but by then, the Sainanis hired counsel and the matter went to litigation. The HOA sued to recover the unpaid fines. The trial court found that the Sainanis violated the guidelines and had never applied for additional lighting displays. The court awarded the HOA $884.17 for unpaid fines and $39,148.25 for attorney fees and costs.
The court also dismissed the Sainanis’ counterclaims to permanently enjoin enforcement of the guidelines and to recover costs and fees under the Virginia Property Owners Association Act for the HOA’s enforcement of the guidelines.
The Sainanis appealed.
“Restrictive covenants ‘are to be construed most strictly against the grantor and persons seeking to enforce them, and substantial doubt or ambiguity is to be resolved in favor of the free use of property and against restrictions.’ … Virginia courts should ‘enforce restrictive covenants where the intention of the parties is clear and the restrictions are reasonable’ and ‘if it is apparent from a reading of the whole instrument that the restrictions carry a certain meaning by definite and necessary implication.’”
“None of the covenants in the amended declaration can be construed to authorize the seasonal guidelines, and thus, the seasonal guidelines exceed the scope of the HOA’s authority. The only restrictive covenant that directly references exterior lighting is in Paragraph C of Article IX, Section 3. This restrictive covenant is inapplicable because it merely prohibits directing exterior lighting outside the boundaries of the lot and causing any ‘adverse visual impact to adjacent Lots, whether by location, wattage or other features[.]’ …
“The seasonal guidelines do not mention ‘adverse visual impact’ at all and do not regulate the ‘location, wattage or other features,’ … of the lighting. … Instead, the seasonal guidelines regulate the dates and the time of day during which residents may display decorative lighting. The guidelines thus go beyond the scope of the exterior-lighting covenant. …
“Construing this covenant ‘most strictly against the grantor and persons seeking to enforce [it],’ we cannot conclude ‘that the activity objected to is within [the covenant’s] terms[.]’”
Reversed. On remand, the circuit court must consider appellants’ counterclaims.
Sainani, et al. v. Belmont Glen Homeowners Ass’n, Inc. Record No. 181037 (Kelsey) Aug. 26, 2019 (Appeal from Loudon Circuit Court). William Axon Marr Jr., Tiago Duncan Bezerra, James Jeffrey Knicely for Appellants. Maria Jordan Diaz, Kara Lynne Tappan for Appellee. VLW 019-6-065, 13 pp.