Gaithersburg considers adopting county service for homeowners -- Gazette.Net


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Homeowners associations in Gaithersburg could be billed thousands of dollars annually if the city adopts a county service.

If the city enacts legislation to use the Montgomery County Commission on Common Ownership Communities, each Gaithersburg homeowners association would be required to pay a fee of $3 per household. Individuals could not opt out.

The Montgomery County Commission on Common Ownership Communities serves member homeowner and condominium associations by educating homeowners and their boards about their rights, holding seminars and reviewing complaints. The commission also helps homeowners and association boards with legal defense, if a complaint escalates.

The commission already provides services to the city of Rockville, which adopted the service in 2011, and some associations throughout the county. According to Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection spokesperson Peter Drymalski, most complaints come from Silver Spring, Bethesda, Rockville and Germantown.

The commission’s dispute resolution process is an alternative to going to court, according to county documents. The process saves homeowners and homeowners associations thousands of dollars in legal fees, according to Gaithersburg Council Vice President Ryan Spiegel.

“The most valuable benefit of the [Commission on Common Ownership Communities] program is the arbitration service,” he said. Spiegel brought the commission to the city council’s attention in 2012 after hearing complaints from residents about homeowners association conflicts.

The city of Gaithersburg sent thousands of letters to residents last week detailing the costs and benefits of becoming commission members.

About 13,000 Gaithersburg residences are governed by homeowners and condominium associations, out of the city’s 24,000 residential units. If Gaithersburg were to adopt the commission, it would cost Gaithersburg homeowners associations about $39,000 per year.

In 1991, the Rockville Common Ownership Communities Association formed with many of the same services for Rockville homeowners, but “requests for service diminished greatly after the first two years,” according to city documents. Rockville formed its own mediation program, and the Rockville Common Ownership Communities Association disbanded.

Rockville adopted the Montgomery County Commission on Common Ownership Communities in 2011, with a built-in timeframe to review its decision to join.

“From the homeowners association standpoint, [commission membership] is an expense to them,” Rockville Councilmember Mark Pierzchala said. “Some of the homeowners associations don’t want it, but on the other hand, we had some homeowners associations who want it.” The city council is reviewing information about the number of requests to the commission.

“We’re not yet formally reconsidering [Rockville’s membership],” he said.

According to data from the county’s Office of Consumer Protection, the county commission received 1,163 inquiries or requests countywide for advice in calendar year 2005. That fell to 883 by calendar year 2008 and 788 by fiscal year 2012.

Homeowners and their associations are not eligible for legal help through the county commission unless they become a paying member of the commission.

Pierzchala noted that the declining numbers might mean that homeowners associations have resolved their issues without escalating them to the commission’s arbitration process.

Spiegel said the number of complaints doesn’t necessarily reflect the size of the dispute and many factors influence the data.

“We’re just trying to do research and get feedback,” Spiegel said.

Though Spiegel has not officially formed a position on the city’s potential adoption, he said $3 a year per household is “a very cheap price to pay to have access to that service.”

Spiegel said, paying the upfront cost will save homeowners legals costs in the long run.

Since Gaithersburg is currently not under the commission’s authority, complaints from Gaithersburg homeowners or associations are often forwarded to the office of the attorney general in Baltimore, Drymalski said.

Kevin Roman heads the city’s Neighborhood Services Division.

“We don’t have any judicial authority to handle violations,” whether the violation is of a homeowners’ association bylaw or covenant, Roman said.

There are minimum code standards for exterior property maintenance violations, he said, but they do not regulate standards like exterior paint colors, which are often dictated by homeowners’ associations.

“From time to time, there are concerns within a homeowners association to make sure it’s being run appropriately,” Roman said, but these complaints are usually forwarded to the attorney general’s office.

According to Roman, the Neighborhood Services Division generally receives fewer than 10 complaints per month from homeowners and their associations. He said the number of complaints might be low because homeowners and associations generally know that Gaithersburg does not handle them.

Kentlands residents Carl and Catherine Beuchert wrote in an email to city officials on Feb. 20 that the proposed adoption is an “unwarranted over-reach by the city and another tax on citizens.” The Beucherts said the educational and conflict resolution services the commission provides would duplicate the system their homeowners’ association already operates.

“Since we effectively handle internal disputes we do not need the city to ‘conduct formal hearings,’” they wrote.

Tim Clarke, president of the Kentlands Community Association, said the community already has a conflict resolution process in place for potential disputes.

“The committee structure works very well,” he said. Clarke said the Kentlands board hears incidents “maybe one time a year.”

“I don’t think we need more [dispute resolution services] than what the city already has,” he said.

Gaithersburg is seeking feedback from residents in the form of an online survey to determine if becoming a member of the commission would be beneficial.

As of Feb. 21, the city received about 40 responses to its online survey, said Kevin Roman, director of Gaithersburg’s Neighborhood Services department. Roman said there were positive and negative comments regarding the potential adoption. Feedback will be accepted until March 15.

scarignan@gazette.net