Q: My community has both single-family homes and townhouses. A question has arisen as to whether the laws that govern condominium associations or homeowners’ associations apply. Can you clarify this for us? (B.K., via e-mail)
A: The answer would depend on the language of the governing documents for your association. Condominiums are governed by Chapter 718 of the Florida Statutes, known as the Florida Condominium Act. In order for the property to be a condominium, it would have to have been created pursuant to a recorded declaration of condominium.
Homeowners’ associations are governed by Chapter 720 of the Florida Statutes, known as the Florida Homeowners’ Association Act. Property subject to this law does not have to be created in a specific statutory manner, but is usually created by a declaration of covenants. The statutory tests to determine whether a community and its association are governed by Chapter 720 are whether the association is responsible for the operation of a community where the voting membership is made up of the parcel owners or their agents, or a combination thereof, where membership in the association is a mandatory condition of ownership and where the association is authorized to impose assessments and record a claim of lien against the parcel if the assessments go unpaid.
Condominiums and communities governed by homeowners’ associations take many forms, so you cannot tell just by looking at the property. For example, some condominiums are freestanding buildings (typical single family home) where the units are actually plots of land or the footprint of the building. Conversely, some homeowners’ associations govern townhouse or villa-style dwellings where there are multiple dwellings contained in each building that “look like” condominiums.
Q: Recently, our condominium board discussed replacing our pool deck. Our pool deck is currently made up of composite decking material. The board wants to install a cement deck. Doesn’t this require a vote of our unit owners? (K.M., via e-mail)
A: Possibly. The Florida Condominium Act states that there shall be no material alteration or substantial additions to the common elements except in the manner provided in the declaration. If the declaration is silent, then such material alterations or substantial additions must be approved by a 75% vote of the total voting interest of the association.
The seminal case defining “material alterations” comes from a 1971 decision from Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal called Sterling Village v. Breitenbach. In Sterling Village , the court stated that if the change “palpably or perceptively vary or change the form, shape, elements or specifications of a building from its original design or plan or existing condition in such a manner as to appreciably affect or influence its functions, use or appearance,” such a change was a material alteration.
Under the test set out in Sterling Village, replacing a composite deck with a concrete deck would appear to be a material alteration and may or may not be subject to owner approval based on the language in your declaration. For example, many declarations allow a board to spend a certain amount of money on material alterations before triggering the requirement for a unit owner vote.
There is also an exception in the law. If an alteration is considered “necessary maintenance” to the condominium property, the owner vote is not required. Convenience and cost savings are not sufficient legal criteria to support changing the common elements without a unit owner vote based on the necessary maintenance exception to the material alteration rule. On the other hand, changes necessary to comply with the law are generally permitted under the necessary maintenance exception. Use of alternative materials always presents a close question. Generally speaking, decisions in this context should be predicated on both a legal opinion, as well as demonstrable evidence from a credible source (for example, an engineer) that the change is “necessary” as that term is used in the law.