My intentions for this week’s column were good. We were going to spend 1,000 words being grateful. But a ruling that came down from the 14th Court of Appeals is too important for our entire area to place on the back burner.
If you haven’t read our front-page story about the Garden Oaks Maintenance Organization’s suit against a homeowner in the area, the appellate court ruled that GOMO (basically the HOA for Garden Oaks), has no power, but also has all the power it needs.
Confusing, right? But whether you live in the Heights, Oak Forest, Timbergrove or any other neighborhood that is bound by deed restriction, this is just as important for you as it is the residents of Garden Oaks.
Here’s what happened, without all the legal mumbo-jumbo that might make your head hurt:
In 2012, GOMO sued Peter and Katherine Chang because they built an extra garage on their house. Garden Oaks deed restrictions say you can’t do that.
When the case went to trial, the Changs and their attorneys used a successful legal argument to win: They found that GOMO was not properly formed. So because of that technical issue, GOMO could not enforce the neighborhood’s deed restrictions against the Changs.
The trial court went further. Both the jury and the judge in the case said GOMO had no legal standing at all. They said the bylaws had no “force and effect.” And they said GOMO did not have “authority,” in the legal meaning of the word, to enforce the bylaws of the neighborhood.
That ruling was a big deal, because it meant the lovely neighborhood of Garden Oaks could become a free-for-all for any homeowner. If you wanted to build a 7-story midrise on Sue Barnett, complete with flashing neon lights, the trial court’s ruling seemed to indicate there were no valid restrictions on doing just that.
But the 14th Court of Appeals issued an opinion last week that put a halt to the unthinkable. While they agreed that GOMO could not enforce the deeds against the Changs (because of that technicality of formation), they overruled the trial court on two critical issues.
First, they said the bylaws of Garden Oaks do have force and effect.
Second, they said GOMO does have standing and authority to enforce the bylaws.
After talking to three attorneys about this opinion, let me tell you why I think this should matter to everyone who cares about keeping some semblance of order in our neighborhoods.
The reality of the appeals court’s opinion is that if I went and built a house in Garden Oaks tomorrow, and I added a second garage to my house, GOMO could take me to court and GOMO would lose. I’d tell my attorneys to use the exact arguments the Changs used to win. We’d simply argue that GOMO is not a valid organization based on some Texas Property Code that you don’t need to know unless you get sued.
In other words, from a strictly legal (and technical) standpoint, GOMO has very little authority right now. At the same time, the appellate court said GOMO does have full authority and standing to enforce the rules of the neighborhood. So on a grand scheme, GOMO is legitimate. But in any individual case, you or I or the Changs or anyone else would probably win a suit against them.
Here’s what I can tell needs to happen. Either GOMO needs to get its paperwork right and eliminate the ability to say its formation is improper, or the organization needs to take this case to the Texas Supreme Court on the specific issue of whether it’s a legitimate organization, allowing it to win future cases like the one they lost to the Changs.
I don’t know much about filing fees, but I do know a little about legal fees, and I can tell you for certain which option would cost the least.
No matter what decision GOMO makes (and yes, I’m over-simplifying for the sake of clarity), the other neighborhoods in our area need to take heed of what’s happening here.
In the Heights, after the elimination of all dry laws, we don’t know what will happen in the months and years to come. If someone tries to open a business that shouldn’t be in the Heights, does the Houston Heights Association have its home in order? Is your formation air tight? Are there any grounds in which you could lose a case like this?
In Oak Forest, there’s an issue brewing that we’ve heard about but haven’t been able to report just yet. The issue stems from some owners turning their homes into AirBnB businesses. It’s unclear what will happen with that issue, but is the Oak Forest HOA ready and able to make (and enforce) rules that will protect residents and the charm of the neighborhood? Do your bylaws say you can rent a home in Oak Forest? If the issue isn’t addressed in your deed restrictions and bylaws, you can either have rental homes or you can’t.
On the one hand, I think it’s great that people like the Changs can use the full extent of the law to protect their home plans. But here’s what I also know: We live in an area of Houston that doesn’t have much governance.
We are part of the fourth largest city in the nation. Our city council spends about as much time on our community as they do on the thousand other neighborhoods in the city limits.
The only thing we have to protect our communities, really, are our homeowner associations. If they don’t protect the future of our neighborhoods, then what organization will? And if they don’t have their paperwork together, if they aren’t formed correctly, if their authority can be questioned, they each should use this as a clarion call to fix those issues now.
Otherwise, our wonderful streets have the potential to become another Richmond Avenue where nearly anything goes.