Florida Appellate Court decision (January 27, 2015).
This case involved a dispute between neighboring townhouse owners over a yard lighting system installed by one of the neighbors that the other neighbor strenuously objected to. The homeowners association governing documents included a restrictive covenant that pertained to landscaping, lighting, and service courts. The relevant provision that became the focus of the case states is entitled “Ostentatious Site Features” and states:
The construction of ostentatious site features such as topiary, sculpture, free standing fountains in the foreground of townhouses or lighting systems which may be offensive to adjacent neighbors is unacceptable.
The homeowners association supported the position of the neighbor that objected to the lighting system primarily on the basis of the association’s restrictive covenant. The association refused to approve the requested lighting plan without the objecting neighbor’s written acknowledgment that the lighting was acceptable to him, or an order from a court that invalidates the provision in the governing documents that pertaining to adjacent neighbors.
The trial court sided with the objecting neighbor and the association and granted summary judgment in favor of the objecting owner. It also awarded the objecting neighbor its attorney fees and costs, which approximated $32,000. The homeowner seeking approval for the lighting system filed an appeal.
The appellate court, not bound by the trial court’s interpretation of the restrictive covenant in question, came to a different conclusion about the meaning of the language contained in the restrictive covenant. The appellate court found that the words “ostentatious” and “unacceptable” as used in the restrictive covenant were confusing and subject to different interpretations. The appellate court also rejected as unreasonable an interpretation that resulted in a finding that a neighbor could prohibit any lighting system that they found to be offensive. The appellate court stated that there was no language in the restrictive covenant that gave adjacent neighbors a right to veto any proposed lighting system that they personally and subjectively found offensive and to impute such a restriction would be contrary to the principal that restraints on the use of property are disfavored and must be strictly construed in favor of the free and unrestricted use of the property.
The appellate court reversed the trial court decision in part, and ruled that the appropriate reading of the restrictive covenant in question was that the association had to consider the opinions of offended neighbors, and could give those opinions “significant weight,” but not “conclusive or exclusive weight.” Furthermore, other factors, such as the desires of the owners who seek to install the lighting and their reasons for same should be taken into consideration. The court stated that the association’s board must render a measured decision on what is reasonable after taking all factors into consideration. Because the trial court had ruled that the objecting adjacent owner essentially had veto power, the decision was error and the appellate court directed the entry of a new judgment in favor of the neighbor seeking to install the lighting system who had sought a ruling that no such neighbor veto power existed.
See case decision: Leamer_v._White_(Fla._App.,_