Powers of the Association: The Court of Appeals of Minnesota found that an association was not obligated to protect an owner’s lake views and had the authority to adopt a good neighbor policy aimed at preventing harassment.
Villas of St. Albans Bay Association (association) governed a 20-unit condominium in Greenwood, Minn., which overlooked Lake Minnetonka. Between the condominium building and the lake was a common element rain garden containing three river birch trees.
In 2000, Elliott and Judith Sirota (the Sirotas) purchased a unit with an unobstructed view of the lake. They paid a premium to be on the lake side of the property. Over time, however, one of the rain garden trees grew to partially obstruct the Sirotas’ view of the lake. In August 2016, the Sirotas and other unit owners began complaining to the association’s board of directors (board) about the blocked views and requested tree trimming.
The board held numerous meetings to allow owners to air their grievances and to discuss whether to trim, remove, replace, or do nothing to the river birches. The board consulted the arborist who regularly maintained the rain garden and trees. The trees were regularly maintained by trimming the lower-level branches (about 10 feet from the ground) and removing dead branches to allow sunlight to the surrounding plants.
The Sirotas requested that the tree be more extensively trimmed by “topping” to remove the whole top of the tree. The arborist told the board that topping the tree was not a viable option. Ultimately, the board and most of the owners whose views were blocked concluded that doing nothing was the best course of action. The Sirotas were not satisfied with the result and began sending emails to all owners and continuously brought the matter up at board meetings.
Partly in response to the Sirotas’ relentless communications, the board adopted a Good Neighbor Policy (policy). The policy directed owners to refrain from bringing forth issues with the community that have previously been addressed and making unjustified or unwarranted accusations about violations of the law or the condominium documents, orally or in writing or in any public forum other than at a meeting duly called for such purpose. The association’s enforcement procedure required notice to the alleged violator and an opportunity to be heard before the board, then the board was to determine the appropriate action, which could include fines up to $100 per violation.
In 2019, the Sirotas were fined $200 for two violations of the policy, and the Sirotas paid those fines. Between May and August of 2020, the Sirotas sent 10 to 13 emails to the board about the tree. The board sent the Sirotas another notice of violations of the policy, but it did not identify the specific provisions violated. A hearing was set for November 2020, but the Sirotas did not attend. After the hearing, the association fined the Sirotas $1,200 for 12 violations of the policy.
The Sirotas did not pay the fines. Instead, they sued the association, alleging that the tree was a private nuisance, breach of the condominium documents, and the policy and fines were invalid. The association counterclaimed to collect the fines and to bar the Sirotas from further violating the policy. The trial court determined that the association did not breach the condominium documents, but it held that the tree was a private nuisance because it materially and substantially infringed upon the free use and enjoyment of the Sirotas’ unit by partially blocking their view. It further concluded that the board did not exceed its authority in adopting the policy, but the Sirotas’ fines were not properly levied. The trial court denied both parties’ requests for attorneys’ fees, and both sides appealed.
The Sirotas contended the association breached the condominium declaration because the trees were planted in the wrong location. The declaration obligated the association to maintain the rain garden as shown on the final plans. The trees planted as part of the original development were not planted in the precise location shown on the final plans. The appeals court did not interpret the declaration’s maintenance requirement as requiring strict adherence to the landscape plans. The plan notes specifically stated that adjustments of proposed plant materials may be needed in the field. The declaration also did not require the association to plant the trees, only maintain the rain garden area, and no mention was made of maintaining views.
The Sirotas insisted the board acted dishonestly when they deferred to other owners in deciding what to do about the trees. The Minnesota Common Interest Ownership Act (act) obligates each director to act in good faith in a manner the director reasonably believes to be in the best interests of the community, and with the care an ordinarily prudent person would exercise under similar circumstances. The act also requires that the director fulfill the obligations and enforce the condominium documents in a uniform and fair manner on all owners.
The appeals court found ample evidence that the board operated in conformance with the act’s standard. The board conducted two polls of the owners, consulted with a tree expert, and held a special meeting to hear the Sirotas’ concerns. The board acknowledged that lake views were important but noted that the trees were common element features, and the Sirotas were not the only owners affected.
The act gives an association the power to adopt rules regulating the conduct of residents which may jeopardize the health, safety, or welfare of other residents, and other things. The appeals court found the policy was properly adopted in accordance with the act because it was enacted to address bullying and harassment, which jeopardized residents’ welfare. Even though the policy was properly adopted, the fines were not properly levied because the association did not notify the Sirotas of the specific policy provisions violated.
A private nuisance is anything that obstructs the free use of property and interferes with the comfortable enjoyment of life, but it also requires wrongful conduct that causes the nuisance. Since the association did nothing wrong, the tree could not be a private nuisance.
The trial court correctly found that the Sirotas were not the prevailing party and, thus, not entitled to their attorneys’ fees. However, due to the reversal of the private nuisance determination, the trial court may reevaluate whether the association should recover its attorneys’ fees.