By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
When I first glanced at the headlines about a Hayden, Idaho homeowner lawsuit over Christmas display, I thought it was just another belated story about an HOA objecting to holiday cheer. After reading the entire article posted by KHQ6, and then watching the video coverage from KREM TV (both links posted below), I realized there is more to this story.
If you’ve been following this blog and HOA news in general, you may remember that in 2015, West Hayden Estates HOA threatened to sue Jeremy Morris and his wife over their elaborate holiday display with thousands of lights, carolers, and a living Nativity complete with a live camel.
The story was picked up by Fox News and widely circulated among all the major news outlets. After scores of photo ops and videos of smiling, starry-eyed children and Dolly the camel, the HOA decided not to sue the homeowners after all.
Apparently, the nuisance – if any – caused by the Christmas display was far less disruptive than bad publicity for the HOA.
You would think that would be the end of the controversy, right?
Not a chance!
The Morris family continued their Christmas tradition in December 2016. This year, the HOA did not threaten to sue, but, according to Morris, there was still friction and unrest, due to the fact that some neighbors do not approve of the Christmas display and the public attention it has drawn.
I also opted to read the complaint filed by Jeremy and Kristy Morris against West Hayden Estates HOA, First Addition last week. (January 2017) The legal complaint is posted below, for the reader’s reference, and it definitely raises some eyebrows.
This lawsuit is not exactly a dispute over the Covenants, Conditions, & Restrictions (CC&Rs). It’s a complaint filed by Jeremy Morris over alleged discriminatory behavior on the part of the Association and his neighbors.
It appears that when certain HOA board members and homeowners realized they had a shaky legal case against Morris based on their CC&Rs, they opted to react in other ways. Specifically, the Morris complaint alleges verbal threats, a pattern of selective enforcement, interference with the original sale of the home in 2015, disruption of his Christmas holiday fundraising event, and more.
There are several other factors that make this case interesting.
- First of all, Jeremy Morris is an attorney, and he is representing himself and his wife in his lawsuit. Obviously, most homeowners are not attorneys that can represent themselves in a lawsuit against their HOAs.
- Because Morris is an attorney, he actually read the CC&Rs prior to purchase, and concluded that there was nothing in the CC&Rs to restrict his Christmas display. He even communicated with the HOA board prior to buying the home.
- The HOA tried to stop the sale of the home, but the seller and the homebuyer (Morris) were not deterred.
- Morris seeks damages related to Fair Housing violations on the basis of religious discrimination.
- And, this is a new one for me, Morris also seeks de-annexation from West Hayden HOA!
I tried to find out more about West Hayden Estates HOA, First Addition. According to the HOA Attorney’s letter, there are 49 lots. This is a small association, and I found no evidence of a website or a professional manager.
I was struck by the complete lack of online presence and transparency, as well as the lack of easily obtainable facts about this HOA. But, then again, I have found this to be common, particularly with regard to small Associations. Most states, and the U.S. Census, do not track residency in HOAs. So small associations often remain virtually invisible.
A search of Kootenia County real estate records here turned up a copy of the CC&Rs. I did not see anything specific regarding holiday displays. There are nuisance clauses, and a restriction of certain business activities, but West Hayden HOA has not chosen to pursue enforcement of either of these restrictions in this case.
What do the CC&Rs say about De-Annexation of property from the Association? See for yourself.
It appears that the only way that the Morris property can be deannexed from the HOA is by at least 75% vote of lot owners. That assumes the Declarant (developer) no longer owns any parcels in the subdivision, which was created in 1999.
In addition, all lot owners are obligated to contribute to maintenance of private roads, according to the CC&Rs, unless homeowners could convince the Kootenai County to take over their roads. If Morris were deannexed, he would be using private roads, but not contributing to their ongoing maintenance.
You see, creation of common areas, no matter how minimal or seemingly innocuous, is the hook that perpetuates the HOA, and makes it exceedingly difficult for property owners to escape from its clutches.
So, in my non-attorney opinion, I think deannexation is a stretch.
However, it does open the door for discussion.
Is it really a good idea to force HOA membership and restrictions upon consumers, as a condition of buying a home?
Is it truly in the public interest to restrict private property rights or civil liberties, in an ultimately futile attempt to ensure the “perfect” attractive community?
If so, at what cost to individual rights and neighborhood harmony?
And, if – or when – property owners wish to escape from this one-side, perpetual “contract,” how will they go about doing so?
Our local governments have approved – even mandated – creation of dozens, hundreds, even thousands of HOAs, without our express consent. And then, as taxpayers, we are expected to obtain the consent and willingness of our local governments to assume responsibility for public infrastructure, public works, or public services as a condition of opting out of HOA membership or, dissolving our mandatory HOAs?
I think it’s safe to assume that most readers find this unacceptable.
And perhaps that explains why HOA conflict persists, despite all of the half-hearted, misguided efforts at regulating the industry.
As promised, here are the references for today’s blog.
Hayden homeowner files lawsuit against HOA claiming religious discrimination against Christmas display
Posted: Jan 19, 2017 7:06 PM EST
Updated: Jan 19, 2017 11:19 PM EST
HAYDEN, Idaho –
Christmas may long be over, but a controversy surrounding an elaborate Christmas light display certainly is not.
Hayden homeowner Jeremy Morris is seeking to have his property de-annexed from the West Hayden Estates Home Owner’s Association and is seeking at least $250,000 in damages after the HOA tried pulling the plug on his gigantic display.
Each year, Morris and his family put on a fundraiser to benefits two local charities that aid children suffering from homelessness or cancer. They show off their elaborate display, invite carolers, and play music for crowds of people.
KREM-TV VIDEO report:
Morris v. West Hayden Estates First Addition HOA:
History and background
Jeremy Morris has been doing Christmas displays since 2014.
Letter to Morris from West Hayden Estates HOA attorney, Oct 2015 (HOA backed down on lawsuit threat)
The letter from HOA Attorney Scott L. Poorman, sent by certified mail in October 2015, is posted below. In the letter, the HOA contends that the 5-day Christmas event would cause a nuisance in terms of unwanted noise and traffic.