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Sainani v. Belmont Glen Homeowners Association, Inc.

Supreme Court of Virginia

August 26, 2019

SANJAY SAINANI, ET AL.
v.
BELMONT GLEN HOMEOWNERS ASSOCIATION, INC.

          FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF LOUDOUN COUNTY Jeanette A. Irby, Judge

          OPINION

          D. ARTHUR KELSEY, JUSTICE

         The trial court in this case awarded a monetary judgment, injunctive relief, and attorney fees and costs to Belmont Glen Homeowners Association, Inc. (the "HOA") in its suit against SanJay and Sona Sainani for violations of the HOA's guidelines governing the use of holiday decorations.[1] Because the court erred in finding that the HOA's seasonal guidelines were enforceable under the HOA's declaration of restrictive covenants, we reverse the court's judgment and its ancillary award of attorney fees and costs, and we remand this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I.

         The pertinent seasonal guidelines were first adopted in 2014 by the HOA's Board of Directors as part of the Community Association Handbook and Architectural Design Guidelines ("HOA Handbook"). These seasonal guidelines state that "[t]he intention of these guidelines is (1) to promote harmony in the community; (2) avoid discourteous and unsafe conditions affecting property values; [and] (3) to avoid religious issues in the community." J.A. at 993. The guidelines permit "tasteful special decorative objects and lighting that are consistent with recognized Federal Holidays, Religious Holidays, Valentine's Day and Halloween" for a specific length of time for four holidays: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Winter Holidays, and the Fourth of July. Id. at 994. Outside of these approved holidays, residents must apply to the HOA's Architectural Review Board ("ARB") to display decorations, but residents are limited to 2 such applications per year and no longer than 11 days for each additional display. The guidelines further provide that decorative lighting must be turned off by midnight each evening.

         In 2015, the guidelines were revised to state that "[t]he purpose for these guidelines is to avoid the prolonged display of lights and decorations outside the respective holiday." Id. at 1019. Additional revisions included adding the holiday Diwali to the list of pre-approved holidays and increasing the time period for the 2 additional displays of decorations to 14 days. The revised guidelines also specifically regulated the use of holiday lighting by limiting the color of Halloween lighting to green, orange, or purple and by prohibiting all lighting displays for Thanksgiving.

         Article IX of the HOA's 2014 amended declaration lists the restrictive covenants. The HOA points to several of these covenants as authorizing the seasonal guidelines. Article IX, Section 3 of the amended declaration addresses nuisances and states in its introductory sentence that "[n]o noxious or offensive activity shall be carried on upon the Property, nor shall anything be done or placed thereon which is or may become an annoyance or nuisance to the neighborhood." Id. at 839. Paragraph C under the nuisance section is entitled "Lighting" and provides:

No exterior lighting on a Lot shall be directed outside the boundaries of the Lot. Exterior lighting which results in an adverse visual impact to adjacent Lots, whether by location, wattage or other features, is prohibited. The ARB shall have the right to determine whether or not exterior lighting results in an adverse visual impact, which decision may be appealed to the Board.

Id.[2] Article IX, Section 4, entitled "Modification," further provides:

No modification or alteration of any Lot, Structure, or any portion thereof, shall be made, installed, constructed, erected, placed, altered and/or externally improved on any Lot or Structure until an Application has been properly filed with, and approved by, the ARB in accordance with the Article and Section hereof entitled, "ARCHITECTURAL REVIEW BOARD. Applications for Improvements or Alterations", and, if required, proper authority has been granted by appropriate authorities and, where required, appropriate construction permits obtained.

Id. at 840 (emphasis in original). Article IX, Section 8 permits the HOA "to adopt such rules and regulations regarding this Article as it may from time to time consider necessary or appropriate." Id. at 842. Article VIII, Section 5 further gives the ARB authority to "regulate the external design and appearance of the Property and the external design, appearance and location of the improvements thereon in such a manner so as to preserve and enhance property values and to maintain harmonious relationships among structures and the natural vegetation and topography." Id. at 837.

         Between December 2013 and February 2016, the Sainanis received multiple violation letters from the HOA for their use of holiday lighting. The Sainanis displayed a string of lights on both their front door and on their back-deck railing in celebration of several Hindu, Sindhi, and Sikh religious holidays throughout the year.[3] The letters from the HOA outlined violations of seasonal guidelines that prohibited leaving holiday lights on after midnight and displaying holiday lights outside of permitted dates. None of the violation letters mentioned the exterior-lighting guideline, see supra note 2, nor was there any mention of or finding that the Sainanis' lighting had "result[ed] in adverse visual impact to adjoining neighbors," J.A. at 986, 1012. After the Sainanis had not responded to the violation letters or complied with the letters' requests to correct the violations through October 2014, the ARB, which oversaw the enforcement of the seasonal guidelines, held a hearing in November 2014 regarding the violations. Despite being mailed notice of the hearing, the Sainanis did not attend the hearing, and the ARB decided to impose a $10 fine for each day that the violations had gone uncorrected for a period of up to 90 days. The ARB mailed their decision to the Sainanis, but they did not correct the violations.

         In 2015 and early 2016, the Sainanis again received multiple violation letters from the HOA for their use of holiday lighting, and the ARB held another hearing in January 2016 and imposed the same penalty. At this second hearing, the ARB additionally suspended the Sainanis' HOA voting privileges and their access to HOA facilities until the violations were corrected. The Sainanis again did not attend this hearing and did not correct the violations. A third hearing was scheduled for February 2016 to address the violations, but that hearing was never held because the Sainanis had obtained legal counsel who requested a continuance and because the matter was then in litigation.

          In September 2015, the HOA filed a warrant in debt in the general district court against the Sainanis to recover the unpaid fines. The Sainanis did not respond to the suit, and the general district court entered summary judgment for the HOA, which the Sainanis subsequently appealed to the trial court. The Sainanis filed counterclaims against the HOA for the first time in the trial court. At the conclusion of the trial, the court granted the HOA's motion to strike the Sainanis' counterclaims. The court found that the Sainanis' "lights were on 24/7" for "at least 300 days a year" in violation of the seasonal guidelines that prohibited leaving lights on after midnight and displaying lights outside of the permitted holiday periods. Id. at 558. The court further found that the Sainanis had never applied for additional lighting displays or for a permanent lighting display despite the opportunity to do so and that the Sainanis had deliberately acknowledged the lighting violations by increasing their payment of HOA dues by $.06 when the dues were $75 and by $.09 when ...


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