The holidays can bring out the best in a community: parties, lights, statues, and festive adornments throughout the neighborhood are common and largely welcomed in community associations. However, there is certainly disparity between what some members adore as tasteful, festive, and appropriate holiday décor, versus the Griswoldian “floodlights” that plague some neighborhoods at all hours of the night. Traffic may also be problematic – candidly even my own children will demand that we “rubberneck” when passing a beautifully decorated home. Yet other residents leave their festive décor up until they can (perhaps unilaterally) justify replacing it with Easter decorations, or put up as early as November 1st. As seen in the news this year, these disputes can create severe discord in a community, Covenant Violations, or even lawsuits. Given the personal, festive nature of these decorations, such disputes can quickly become a “matter of principal” that simply won’t be resolved absent a judge’s decision. (Author’s note: such personal matters rarely end with the desired outcome!)
Some HOAs attempt to preemptively combat these issues by implementing rules regulating (or even prohibiting) outdoor decorations, including in type, timeframes when they can be up, etc. While authority to do so generally exists, it can be difficult (and divisive) to create and enforce these rules. As a suggestion from a lawyer that deals with these issues on a regular basis, the Association should consider the desires of its residents in regulating holiday decorations. A perfect example is the handling of an association seeking to enforce its rule prohibiting Christmas décor before Thanksgiving, against owners who could only find a contractor to install their decorations on November 6, 2021. The attorney could have fought tooth and nail to enforce this reasonable rule, but instead reportedly cautioned the Board to take into account the members’ actual desire, which appears to have been to revise that rule to allow for reasonable exceptions. Rather than remain the stereotypical HOA “commandos,” the Board showed they care, and in the holiday spirit, it appears they may have mitigated the disruption of everyone’s holiday cheer in doing so. While regulations on holiday decorations may serve a valuable purpose in some Associations, in other Associations, similar regulations may seem overbearing and exemplify the reasons many – while perhaps missing the purpose of an HOA – prefer to avoid living in one.
If an Association’s rules restricting or banning holiday décor are challenged in court, the Association must establish that the rules meet the criteria of reasonableness set forth in Hidden Harbour Estates, Inc. v. Norman, 309 So. 2d 180 (Fla. 4th DCA 1975): they cannot be arbitrary or capricious, and must bear some relationship to the health, happiness, and enjoyment of life to the residents of the community. If the Association cannot show that the rules further this purpose, a Court might find them unreasonable, and thus, unenforceable. Another factor to consider is that the judges ruling on these disputes have some authority to decide what is fair and equitable, after what can be a long, drawn-out battle. Hopefully for many HOAs, the issue will never come to this, but keep in mind the likelihood that you may still be fighting that battle next Christmas, and spending thousands of dollars to ensure a plastic snowman moves from lawn to attic for a few months.
In short, timely, tasteful holiday décor can bring joy and strengthen the sense of community in associations, but that does not mean reasonable regulations cannot be enacted to protect the community as a whole. Regardless of whether you’re hanging wreaths, hanging lights, or just hanging around with family this holiday season, we wish a wonderful holiday season to all!