Michael Hunter

Can HOAs allow golf carts? It depends...

Note: This week’s column was written by my law partner, Bill Hamel.

With summer winding down you may have noticed that recreational golf carts are not an uncommon sight on neighborhood roads in Charlotte and the surrounding areas. Just this past May an urban legend was born when a golf cart from Quail Hollow Country Club mysteriously appeared at Selwyn Pub – more than five miles from the country club.

Privately owned golf carts are used for everything from the obvious, like driving to and from the golf course, to joyriding, to maneuvering fishing equipment to the favorite fishing hole. To legally operate a golf cart on a public street in North Carolina, the golf cart must be registered with the state. To be registered with the state, a golf cart has to be professionally altered to be more like an electric car than a golf cart.

There are exceptions or circumstances where these rules may not apply. The exceptions include: (1) When you are in a county or city that has adopted its own rules allowing the operation of golf carts on streets with speed limits no greater than 35. ; (2) when you are in a private community with private roads that are not accessible to the general public; or (3) when you are operating a golf cart on private property (such as a golf course) that crosses a public road, in which case you can take the most direct route across the public road to access the private property on the other side.

Let's look a little further at the rules and their implications for your homeowners’ association.

Operation on public roads

N.C. law defines a golf cart as a vehicle not capable of exceeding speeds of 20 m.p.h. which is designed and manufactured for operation on a golf course for sporting or recreational purposes. The law requires any vehicle intended to be operated upon a public road to be registered with the state DMV. The DMV will not issue a registration to a vehicle that meets the definition of a golf cart.

Under the law, unregistered vehicles such as golf carts can cross public roadways, but “cross” appears to be limited to the quickest and safest route from one side to the other. This seems to apply primarily to situations where cart paths intersect public roads. A golf cart cannot actually “use” a public road outside of the designated cart-path crossing points.

Interestingly, state law allows counties and cities to adopt their own provisions regulating the operation of golf carts on public streets and highways where the speed limit is 35 or less. However, unless your county has adopted such provisions, golf carts may not be legally operated on the public roads. Neither Mecklenburg County or the City of Charlotte have adopted such an ordinance.

Operation on Private Roads

Private communities that own and maintain their own roads, where the roads are not open to the public, would presumably be an exception to the general rule prohibiting the use of golf carts on public roads. The operation of golf carts on private streets would ordinarily be controlled by the owner of the street, or in many cases by an HOA charged with governing the use of the private streets.

What Should My HOA Do?

If your HOA has private roads, there may be existing restrictive covenants in your community that govern the operation and use of golf carts. Also, the HOA is likely empowered to make rules and regulations regarding the operation and use of golf carts on the private roads. Any such rules and regulations should be reasonable and within the spirit and culture of the neighborhood.

If your HOA has public roads, we typically advise HOAs to allow an issue like this one to be between the lot owners and law enforcement, as HOAs are not in the business of enforcing public laws. Within the boundaries of the neighborhood, however, HOAs typically do have provisions in their restrictive covenants that make it a violation of use restrictions to engage in activity that is unlawful.

This means HOAs often have the power to use fines and other powers of enforcement to discourage the unlawful use of golf carts on public streets or sidewalks. In deciding whether to take a proactive role in preventing unlawful use of golf carts, an HOA should consider the interest of law enforcement, the volume of golf cart use in the HOA, and the risks associated with either being inactive or proactive on the issue.

Charlotte attorney Michael Hunter represents community and condominium associations for the firm of Horack Talley. Email questions to home@charlotteobserver.com. Not every question receives a reply. Find his blog at www.CarolinaCommonElements.com.