Why purchase a home in the 100-acre wood?
By Frank D. Mroczka, Esq.
A recent lawsuit has caught the attention of not only friends and neighbors in a development just outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but has also gotten the nod from the Commonwealth Court that although not life threatening, the likeness of the cartoon character Tigger cannot roam freely in the Laurel Oaks development. What made the Laurel Oaks Homeowners Association roar?
At first glance, all of us might say: what’s the harm with a residential property owner modeling their mailbox in the shape of one of the most beloved children’s fictional charters—Tigger? Yes, that Tigger. The happy-go-lucky feline and close friend of Winnie the Pooh who captured the hearts of millions over four decades has just become the focal point of a lawsuit to tear him down.
When this harmless stray ended up at the end of a driveway in the homeowner association development, the HOA decided to take action for its permanent removal. In 2012, the parents of their little girl decided to make a mailbox resemble the likeness of Tigger. This did not set well with the HOA and perhaps with other owner’s in the development. This simple yet cute “structure” wound the homeowners up in a 3-year litigation.
In November of 2017, an appellate court in Pennsylvania found in favor of the HOA and allowed them to enforce their rules and regulations, requiring the Tigger likeness to be removed. The HOA classified the mailbox as a “structure” within the HOA’s rules and because of this, it was a non-permitted item.
Let’s not be so quick to judge the Association. The mailbox, built to a symbol of a cartoon character, was not a disgusting structure; not a danger or hazard to others, and in all likelihood was a cartoon even members of the HOA board grew up watching on Saturday mornings. So, what was so wrong with the mailbox?
It’s simple: if this were not in a development governed by a HOA’s rules and regulations, there would be no case, as anyone can modify their mailboxes, just so they do not cause a hazard or injury to the mail delivery person, and it must be a type created in such a way so as not to destroy the mail itself.
When people buy a house within a development that has a HOA, they are not merely buying real state with a home on it, they are purchasing other rights, rights that prevent others and you from violating any of the covenants and restrictions with the purchase of their home and property. These rights are enforced by the HOA itself by contract.
A classic example of one of these rights is the prohibition against storing junk cars in your driveway—which clearly is not an aesthetically pleasing sight to the neighbors, but also may affect the safe environment of leaking oil or gas tanks. Other examples could be erecting a shed that does not meet certain quality standards or locations on the property, or which may look atrocious in their own right. Such storage and structures can even cause property values in the neighborhood to decrease. Thus, the need for protecting the rights of the homeowners.
Frank: “Tigger isn’t hazardous or repulsive—they should have just let this harmless mailbox go.”
If the HOA had not acted on this type of structure—located at the end of the driveway for all to see, any neighbor can shape and mold their mailboxes to whatever their desire. Some in life-size renditions of Batman, or to the likenesses of their favorite political figure. This would violate the provisions of the rules of the HOA in the case at hand, rules each and every homeowner in the development likely spent a lot of money when they purchased their home.
Now for the legal:
When a developer creates a development, it not only builds homes and creates streets, it also, by filed covenants and restrictions in the courthouse, places restrictions on what the homeowner can and cannot do. These are filed in the courthouse for all the world to see—even the buyers. In such developments you CAN quite literally choose your neighbors—or more accurately, what your neighbors can and can’t do with their land. Although not as in your face violation as a neighbor operating a private garage business in his driveway, the Tigger problem falls under the same rules as a garage. When you buy your property, a contract is made when you accept those recorded covenants and restrictions in the courthouse or in your deed.
Some will say “Frank, I get it. But what on God’s green earth do these legitimate concerns have to do with a mailbox?” The answer is simple: the HOA in this case has restrictions that prevent such a “structure…which did not comply with the architectural design of the community.” You can bet there was no HOA rule specifically stating you can’t make Tigger mailboxes—because the variety or combinations of mail boxes is endless, but it appears the Court here reasoned that it matters not the content of the message, rather, it was the type of structure prohibited. Determination of what constitutes a violation of HOA rules lies initially in the purview of the HOA itself.
Here, yes, we have good-ole Tigger, but what’s to stop a neighbor making their mailbox in the likeliness of Adolph Hitler or Bin Laden? Would you like to pass this by every day? This is why the ruling makes sense. It was foreseen when the rules were created that certain structures shall not be allowed on the property, taking into consideration all current and future purchasers in this 100 Acre Wood. It was said that Tigger always bounces back, but it appears not so in this case.
The take-away: Always read your covenants and restrictions before you buy a house in a development or purchase one with a Homeowner Association. If you need help trudging through the entangled forest of the legal ramifications of their rules and regulations, hire a good real estate lawyer to help you get and maintain a solid path. If you have any questions about HOA policies or real estate law, do not hesitate to give me a call at 717 775 7195.