The cheerful looking note – adorned by a cartoon Christmas tree – was sent to home owners with a less than cheerful headline: “The annual request to stay off and out of the tree.”
What followed was a friendly holiday threat from the Baxter Community Home Owners Association in Fort Mill, S.C, to its thousands of members. Anyone caught climbing the neighborhood’s official Christmas tree could be charged with trespassing.
“Last year, we found two elementary school-age kids in the tree,” explained the association, “and two years ago, it was group of middle school kids.”
Such is the nation’s newest Christmas tradition: A perennial tug-of-war with home owners associations (HOA) over holiday decorations.
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Conflicts are inevitable, with 66 million Americans living in common interest communities such as home owners associations, condominium associations and gated subdivisions, according to the Community Associations Network.
Rules are inevitable, too, including guides on when you can put holiday decorations up; when you must take them down; how far you can go in the name of “holiday spirit” and (occasionally) if your 15-foot inflatable Santa poses a neighborhood threat.
In the case of the Baxter HOA, officials were worried about repair costs and safety. The steel tree there has been damaged in the past by climbers, who also could easily fall, get seriously hurt and sue.
There is little doubt that Americans are stubborn when it comes to their civil decorative rights, often relying on claims of freedom of speech, freedom of religion and discrimination. Plus, who can resist touching something that glows, pulsates and sometimes plays music on a cold winter night.
Some decoration disputes have a actually made it to the court level, including a Detroit HOA that faced a religious discrimination suit after ordering a family to remove a nativity scene from a yard. Another case, in Chicago, went to federal appeals court after an HOA told a homeowner she couldn’t display a Jewish religious symbol on her doorpost, according to the Massachusetts-based firm of Marcus, Errico, Emmer & Brooks, an expert in HOA legal affairs.
One thing is clear: Legal experts say HOAs can limit choices for exterior decorations, says the Web site FindLaw. That’s because property owners agreed to be bound by community covenants when they bought their home, says the site.
Charlotte attorney Cynthia Jones of Horack, Talley, Pharr & Lowndes says that firm’s work with HOAs has had only case involving decorations. It “was not related to holiday decorations,” she recalled, “but rather religious ones that were on houses in a neighborhood and it wasn't close to the holiday.”
“I saw the notice that was distributed regarding the tree in Baxter,” Jones says. “...It was more vandalism related, as they've had issues with people damaging the tree and they are trying to stop that.”
Charlotte Attorney Michael S. Hunter, who also works with HOAs, has recommendations for homeowners on how to avoid troubles.
First, he says, read the community’s governing documents or check with the HOA or its management company to see if there are any specific restrictions. “I have seen communities with rules stating that decorations cannot be put up more than a certain number of days before the holiday, and must be taken down within a certain number of days afterward,” he says.
Also, avoid displays with loud music, sound effects, or bright flashing lights that might be irritating to your neighbors. “In other words, use common sense and be respectful of others. Not everyone recognizes or celebrates the same holidays,” he says.
The National Association of Realtors has tips, too, for people who are considering violating their HOA rules.
First, it advises talking to the neighbors. Then, the association says you should consider taking the case to the home owners association board, to ask for an amendment or exception to the holiday decorations.
If they refuse and you decorate anyway, a nasty letter followed by a fine might be the worst it gets, the association says.