In many Michigan condominiums and HOAs, the governing documents contain a provision creating an Architectural Control Committee (“ACC”) tasked with maintaining the overall aesthetics of structures within the community. Normally, when an owner wishes to modify a structure, the owner may petition the association’s ACC for approval. If the owner is denied the requested modification, this can lead to claims of bias, harassment, overreach and even litigation.
In a recent Pennsylvania case, Weber v. Board of Directors of the Laurel Oaks Association, No. 2051 C.D. 2016 (Pa. Commw. Ct. Nov. 13, 2017), Jonathan and Abbey Weber installed a mailbox that resembled the Disney character “Tigger.” As Tigger says, “The wonderful thing about Tiggers is Tiggers are wonderful things!” The Laurel Oaks Homeowners Association did not consider the Tigger mailbox a “wonderful thing” and instead decided that the Tigger-shaped mailbox did not fit within the aesthetics of the structures in the neighborhood. Given that the association had the right to approve any modification to “structures” in the neighborhood pursuant to the governing documents, the association argued that the mailbox was a “structure” and requested that the Webers remove the mailbox. The Webers refused and instead they sued the association and its management company claiming that the mailbox was not a structure requiring board approval and that it was compatible with the community’s architectural design.
After a lengthy court battle and appeal, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania determined that both the plain meaning and the legal definition of the term “structure,” including definitions found in the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code and Black’s Law Dictionary, revealed that a mailbox is a “structure.” As a result, the association had authority to regulate mailboxes under the governing documents. As such, any modification to the mailbox/structure required association approval. Because the Webers failed to obtain permission to modify their mailbox, the Tigger mailbox was ordered to be removed.
Similar to the Weber decision, Michigan courts will likely analyze whether mailboxes are “structures” by first looking to the governing documents and next, if applicable, reviewing the dictionary definitions of what a “structure” includes. Therefore, when handling issues related to mailboxes in Michigan, the Board of Directors should review the relevant provisions of the governing documents to determine whether the word “structures” has a particular meaning for your specific association. Further, the association may want to specify in the governing documents that certain structures, such as mailboxes, are explicitly defined as structures to avoid any ambiguity.
Joe Wloszek is a Member of Hirzel Law, PLC where he focuses his practice on condominium and homeowner’s association law, commercial litigation, commercial real estate, large contractual disputes, and related real estate matters. Mr. Wloszek has been a Super Lawyers Rising Star in Real Estate Law from 2013-2018, an award given to only 2.5% of the attorneys in Michigan each year. He was also named a Top Lawyer in commercial law by DBusiness Magazine in 2014, a Michigan Top Lawyer in real estate law by Michigan Top Lawyers in 2016 and the Pro Bono Volunteer Attorney of the Year in 2014 by Michigan Community Resources. He is a Certified Real Estate Continuing Education Instructor through the State of Michigan and the past Chair of the Oakland County Bar Association Real Estate Committee. He can be reached at (248) 478-1800 or firstname.lastname@example.org.