Subdivision Covenants – Protecting the Homeowners’ Collective Interests

by Talis Abolins.

In recent decades a new form of residential living has led to a fundamental legal change in private property ownership. Today, more and more homeowners are finding that they have bought much more than a piece of property. They have bought a membership in those private mini-democracies known as the “homeowner association”. Like small nations, these associations can be friendly, hostile, well managed, or in disarray. Serving on the association board of directors is an honorable and important responsibility.  In the best case scenario, the association is supported by dedicated and responsible volunteers, who willingly serve on the board of directors.  However, in some cases, the job falls to individuals who may embroil the association into arguments, or irresponsible management of association business. That is why it is so important to know your neighbors, and to participate at your association meetings.

What is the association’s business? In many neighborhoods, the association is there to preserve and protect the property values of all residents by enforcing a Declaration of Covenants. These covenants are binding legal rules that govern the use of private property. Before modern neighborhoods, covenants were narrowly interpreted because the law discouraged restrictions on the private use of land.  However, in the case of Riss v. Angel, the Washington Supreme Court announced a modern rule under which residential subdivision covenants must be construed in a manner that favors the collective interests of the owners, and preserves their reasonable expectations.   Riss v. Angel, 131 Wn.2d 612, 934 P.2d 669 (1997). The Court said that a special emphasis must be placed “on arriving at an interpretation that protects the homeowners’ collective interests.” Riss, 131 Wn.2d at 624.  This Court stepped away from the old traditional rule that an owner had a right to use his or her land freely, and for all lawful purposes.   The Court explained that this old rule no longer made sense “in the subdivision context”.  As the idea of  “zoning had gained favor, so had private restrictions” designed to enhance the value and appearance of private neighborhoods through consistent standards.    Living in these mini-democracies is not for everyone. Many people do not want to have their properties subject to a set of common rules and covenants. However, if your property is subject to association enforced covenants, be sure to participate! As with any democracy, the modern homeowner association gives its members a voice, and an opportunity to affect the rules and decisions that affect its citizens. If you have questions or issues involving real estate or business, feel free to contact us at Campbell Dille Barnett & Smith, PLLC ( (253) 848-3513).