Sunday, March 30, 2014

My emotional support animal is bigger than yours!

We've all heard the playground chant about whose dad or house or anything of importance is bigger than someone else's. Lately, I wonder if there isn't a race in some pet-restricted communities to see how many people can actually get a pet by hook or by crook. Last Friday seemed to be my day to bump into a variety of service and support animals as I visited several different venues in Broward County.

My first encounter was with a very cute little dog wearing a standard Service Animal vest walking along the sidewalk near the entrance to my office building. The dog strained his leash as he eagerly attempted to jump up and greet passersby. Friendly for sure but not typical service animal behavior. When I got up to my office I decided to see how easy it is to order a service animal vest for your dog. It turns out it is pretty darn easy. Dozens of companies came up including Amazon and Ebay. One website did have the following warning on it:  

It is fraudulent to represent your dog as a service animal if it is not. Please don’t do it! Although service dog vests are not required by ADA Law, persons with service animals find it easier  to outfit their dog in a service dog vest.  It instantly shows the place you are entering that your dog is a service dog and has the right to accompany you.  Simply put it helps to avoid confrontation.  We will not sell any service animal supplies for a pet dog.

Still, there was nothing to stop someone from completely ignoring the foregoing information and proceeding to the order page.

I suppose the statement that a service animal vest helps to "avoid confrontation" is true because most business owners are now so fearful of litigation that they have instructed their employees not to inquire about a dog wearing one even if the animal seems to otherwise not fit the service animal mode.

Later at a business lunch on Las Olas, my colleague and I were seated outside next to a table with three Yorkies accompanied by their human "masters". One of the dogs sat in his owner's lap, one on the floor near the table and the third comfortably sat on top of the table throughout the meal. These dogs wore no vests so their presence at the upscale bistro remained a mystery. Perhaps they were there to provide emotional support rather than being trained service animals? Frankly, the weather was beautiful and the dogs were no trouble at all other than the odd sensation the one actually sitting on the table created while looking over at our meal wistfully.

My last encounter came later that evening when my family and I went to the Broward Center to see Green Day's American Idiot. Midway through the performance we heard a dog barking in the theater. Since there were no canine performers in the show, we realized it was yet another support animal who had found his or her way into the theater. We looked left and right to see where the dog was seated and, to my surprise, I found a man two seats down from us with his bare feet propped up on the brass balcony railing. American Idiot indeed!

For 12 1/2 years, I was the proud and happy owner of a Boxer named Baci; the name means "kisses" in Italian and it was an apt moniker as he was friendly as most Boxers are. While my family and I loved spending time with Baci, we never felt compelled to buy him a Service Animal vest so he could accompany us to places he really shouldn't be. I chuckle even thinking about how he would have certainly worked to get any such vest off himself. We usually took him to the dog park as opposed to French restaurants and while he was a fit television companion, I cannot imagine enjoying a Broadway show with Baci rolling around next to us.

The choice to pursue or forego a fraudulent service animal or support animal request boils down to an honor system of sorts. At this point, it really should not be surprising that some people are going to act dishonorably in this regard.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Five Things Your Board of Directors and Neighbors Won't Tell You.

5 Things Your Board of Directors Won't Tell You.

1.      "We don't all like each other." This should come as no surprise but many boards fight amongst themselves. Unless the directors run in a block (which creates a problem in and of itself) chances are your board is made up of different personalities not all of whom will play nicely with each other. Bottom line is that many people don't like other people so why should volunteer boards be any different?

2.      "We haven't really read the governing documents." Ask most board members and they will cite chapter and verse of the association's governing documents; problem is that some of them haven't actually read those chapters and verses but have just heard from other members that's what the documents say. There is a wide disparity in the knowledge base amongst the directors on this topic. Some diligent directors actually do read every word of the entire set of governing documents; others just think they did.

3.      "Some of us don't pay our assessments on time."  A delinquent director is the classic case of "do as I say, not as I do."  Fortunately, delinquent directors are now automatically removed from office if they go beyond the 90-day mark but far too often some directors still pay late and/or violate rules to which other members are bound.

4.      "We prefer you not show up for meetings."  We've all seen how nettlesome and long-winded some members can be at meetings but still, the whole point of such meetings is to keep the members involved and informed about their community's operations. Boards would be well advised to take the approach of "if you love something set it free" by making every effort to encourage members to attend-chances are they still won't show up (see #2 below).

5.      "We think we know more than our lawyer, accountant, engineer, fill in the blank."  We have all seen how well decisions made by overly confident board members usually turn out. There is a reason that attorneys, engineers, accountants and other professionals make a livelihood out of representing private residential communities. A specialized set of skills is often needed to solve complex association problems. Boards who decide to go it alone either as a cost-saving technique or as a result of hubris often learn costly lessons the hard way.

5 Things Your Association Neighbors Won't Tell You.

1.      "We never read the governing documents."  How many times must we go over this one? Please do not buy a property inside a mandatory association unless and until you have read (or retained someone to read) the governing documents to determine that you can live without that St. Bernard or monster truck. You will save yourself and your neighbors a lot of headaches and legal bills if you do.

2.      "We don't really want to miss CSI to attend a board or membership meeting."  Board and membership meetings are not the most scintillating way to spend your Tuesday night especially after a long day at the office or running your household. Still, you really do waive your right to complain if you never show up.

3.      "If you specially assess us for any reason including necessary maintenance we will grumble and/or try to recall you."  Granted, the words "special assessment" are two of the dirtiest in a community association but how does one expect the roof to remain watertight or the pool to pass the Health Code if things are not maintained? Rather than threatening to revolt, a commitment to fully funding reserves might be a more attractive alternative to the special assessments which become inevitable when those reserves are waived year after year.

4.      "We will likely need an emotional support animal at some point."  Certainly, there are individuals who benefit emotionally and physically from a furry companion. However, if you are otherwise of sound mind and body, you must ask yourself if you are willing to "game the system" to get what you want. Perhaps it would be better to purchase in a community where pets are not only permitted but welcomed?

5.      "We think we can do a better job than you even though we don't feel like actually running for the board or showing up for meetings."  See # 2 above. You may very well be a better candidate for the board but how will you ever know if you never show up or contribute your time and energy to making your community a better place to live?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Are golf course communities becoming a thing of the past?

As I type this blog, I am sitting in my backyard looking at the fourth hole of the private golf course community my family and I have called home for the last two decades.

One of the many things that attracted us to this particular community was the overall ambience that living on a golf course provides. The wide expanse of nature in our backyard provided an appealing and peaceful view.  Our children loved seeing the wide variety of wildlife that also make the course their home. It is not unusual to see all sorts of birds including large herons and cranes, turtles sunning themselves on the rough as well as iguanas, foxes, alligators and even an otter that has played in the canal that rings the course for years.

I recently learned that yet another Florida golf course will be developed into a planned community. California-based developer, Standard Pacific Corp., will be turning the 33-acre Raintree Golf & Country Club in Pembroke Pines golf course into a community of 105 single-family homes. The course had been closed since 2006. The city of Pembroke Pines purchased it in 2009 for $9.1 million and sold it last week for $7.7 million.

Isn't this the scenario played out in the minds of every owner whose home currently sits on or adjacent to a private golf course? If the course cannot remain profitable, it will close, the property may sit abandoned and become an eyesore or it will be sold and developed at some point, which will completely change the nature and overall feel of the community?

After all, there is only so much green space left in most parts of Florida. Now that builders are starting to build again, looking to redevelop existing green space such as golf courses makes sense.

Some developers who built these kinds of communities understood this future risk and encumbered the real property on which the course was situated with a restrictive covenant requiring that the property always remain open green space used for a golf course purpose only. Of course, that kind of restrictive covenant can be extinguished by application of the Marketable Record Title Act (MRTA) and many of these golf course covenants have since been extinguished, thirty years or more after the first root of title creating same.

Now I realize that some folks might welcome the obliteration of the golf course next door. I venture to guess, however, that more folks would be wary of what kind of development might go up as well as the potential impact to their structure (not to mention their quiet enjoyment of their property) as a result of the ongoing construction. Lest we remain too human-focused in our concerns, it is important to also mention that developing a golf course results in the death and displacement of countless wildlife.

As for me, I would rather look at the beauty of nature any day of the week.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

A Legal Homecoming

Last week I rejoined Becker & Poliakoff, where I began practicing community association law two decades ago. For perspective, my son Ryan was four months old when I was first interviewed by Becker & Poliakoff.  He is now about to graduate from UF and deciding where to attend law school in the Fall.

I started writing this Condo and HOA Law blog during my initial tenure at B&P and it is only fitting that I dedicate my first blog back in my legal home to how the firm and I have grown.

I had worked with a boutique real estate and banking law firm in Miami directly out of law school. When I was asked whether or not I would consider switching to the representation of community associations, I thought "sure, how hard could it be to read the statutes". I quickly learned that the proper representation of private residential communities requires an extensive knowledge of many different areas of law including corporate, real estate, banking, land use and zoning, litigation, probate, labor law and more. 

This new area of practice required not only acquiring new legal skills but new people skills as well. Dealing with volunteer boards and the other professionals who service them, is a much more hands-on relationship than representing corporations for profit. I quickly realized that the human side of this professional equation was perhaps the most fulfilling part of my day.

In 2007, I left the firm. During my time away, I wrote extensively on association issues, built meaningful relationships with legislators, association leaders, industry professionals, umbrella groups, and individual association members, drafted community association legislation, created an extensive Social Media platform, mentored attorneys and created a truly sophisticated transactional law practice. I was fortunate enough to do all this and more. I acquired new skills and experiences that now help me better serve the communities who seek my help.

While I was growing up, Becker & Poliakoff was growing out. The number of attorneys grew to 170 and new offices were opened in New York, New Jersey, Washington DC and Virginia in addition to the firm's thirteen offices throughout Florida and its international office in Prague. 

Last week was an emotional homecoming after having been away for seven years but seeing many of the same faces that have been at Becker & Poliakoff for decades only reinforced the strength of a law firm that was founded in 1973 as a pioneer in assisting the burgeoning number of shared ownership communities that were being developed throughout Florida in the '60's, 70's, 80's and 90's. 

"Welcome home" are two of the nicest words in the English language. It feels good to be home where it all started and it feels exciting to be part of an association practice group that is so very capable of assisting every residential community regardless of size or location.