Nothing can get your community into the spirit of the holidays quite like festive decorations. However, many HOA governing documents, as well as state laws and city ordinances, place restrictions on how and when these decorations can be displayed, and sometimes, they contradict. So, to best prepare for upcoming holidays, it’s important for HOA board members to be familiar with these rules and enforce them fairly.
In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the primary rules to look out for when it comes to holidays in HOAs, how to plan your community’s decoration guidelines, and ways to promote a happy holiday celebration in your community – one that all members will enjoy.
Know the Rules
Of course, the first step you should take to understand how to address holiday decorations in your community is to review the HOA’s governing documents, local and city ordinances, and state laws. If there is a conflict between state law and the governing documents where decorations are concerned, the HOA will need to follow state law.
Let’s take a moment to look at how laws and HOA rules impact flag displays, religious displays, and firework displays in community associations.
States typically have laws protecting the display of state flags in HOAs, and federal law protects the display of the American flag in association communities. State laws may also exist that protect the display of other types of flags, such as official U.S. military flags. So, even if the HOA has a rule that disallows homeowners from displaying flags on their properties, any existing state law or federal law would trump this rule, so that the HOA must allow homeowners to display flags protected by the law.
However, most state laws will permit HOAs to place certain restrictions on how flags can be displayed, such as limiting the size of the flag, the placement and height of the flagpole, how a flag may be hung from the house, etc. If this is the case, the board should check the governing documents to ensure that its restrictions match up to the restrictions permitted by law, or that any flag display guidelines the HOA creates do not contradict these state laws and that the governing documents give the HOA the authority to enact such guidelines or restrictions. Otherwise, the association will not be able to enforce them.
In some circumstances, prohibiting or regulating holiday decorations that involve the display of religious items may raise fair housing issues. In addition, state law may provide specific protections for these kinds of displays, such as a state statute that prevents community associations from prohibiting religious displays on an individual homeowner’s property. While the HOA may be able to limit the size and placement of religious holiday decorations and displays, according to what is permitted by the law, the association should be careful to enforce fairly to avoid religious discrimination.
In other words, displays of all religions must be treated equally and fairly following the law, and HOA rules cannot conflict with the types of religious displays permitted by the law.
While fireworks are more of a celebratory activity than a decoration, they are a big part of holidays in neighborhoods and are typically restricted by state law and local ordinances. So, they are worth mentioning here.
Many local and city ordinances disallow fireworks within county or city limits, so even if the HOA’s governing documents allow fireworks or do not have rules concerning fireworks, homeowners are probably not allowed to use them in the community. However, in that scenario, local officials (and not the HOA board) would have the authority to enforce any existing local ordinances or city laws against fireworks.
So, without firework restrictions in the HOA’s governing documents, homeowners could only report firework displays to the police or local code enforcement officials. The HOA itself could not send violations to homeowners who broke the law by using fireworks in the community because the homeowners would not have broken an HOA rule.
Additionally, if fireworks are permitted in your community, check your association’s noise nuisance policy to determine when fireworks must stop to prevent them from interfering with homeowners’ sleep. Homeowners should be alerted to this end time, along with general safety rules for handling fireworks, such as dunking them in water before throwing them away, using them at a safe distance from people’s homes and from trees, etc.
It is wise for board members to communicate local ordinances concerning fireworks to homeowners before major holidays (such as Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve), so they are aware of the restrictions and possible consequences for not following these laws.
For assistance finding and understanding laws and governing document rules concerning flag displays, religious displays, and fireworks for your community, reach out to your community manager and/or the HOA’s attorney.
Planning Holiday Decoration Guidelines
If your association’s governing documents do not have clear rules concerning holiday decorations, your association may be able to create and adopt guidelines to help ensure fair and equal enforcement. To do this, the board can either work on the document itself or form a committee to assist in drafting this document. In either case, the association’s attorney should assist in this project to ensure the guidelines are authorized by and do not conflict with the governing documents or state or local law.
Additionally, remember that even if a committee does the research for and helps put together the guidelines document, the board (or even sometimes the membership) needs to approve it before it is enforceable.
Here are some items the board should consider when drafting holiday decorations guidelines:
- How many days before the holiday homeowners may put up decorations
- How many days after the holiday the homeowners must take down decorations
- When lights may be turned on each day and when lights should be turned off each night
- When music-playing and sound-making decorations may be turned on each day and when they must be turned off each night
- Any size and placement restrictions permitted by the association and state law
Additionally, when creating these guidelines, the board should include instructions for hiring the vendor to install decorations in the common areas, including the cost limits for decorations and installation, how many bids the association must gather before choosing a vendor, and what types of decorations the association should install. The board should also ensure that the HOA follows the same rules given to residents for when decorations are put up, taken down, turned on and off, etc.
A Recipe for a Picture-Perfect Holiday
When making plans for holiday decorations, be sure to include positive and creative inspiration to homeowners along with the rules necessary to protect homeowners’ rights and help ensure homeowners’ safety.
For instance, when communicating the rules for holiday decorations in the community, the association can also provide ideas for unique and festive décor that follows these guidelines and even plan events to create some of these decorations.
For instance, wreaths are a great addition to any holiday celebration, not just Thanksgiving and the winter holiday season. Red, white, and blue ribbons, paired with foam or felt stars, can add a splash of color for Fourth of July, and miniature plastic pumpkins, maple leaves, pinecone owls, and felt bats can add a spooky, cute touch for Halloween. Homeowners can bring their supplies to the community clubhouse or park pavilions for a wreath-making tutorial and party in one.
Children can decorate driveways with sidewalk chalk to create a path for Trick-or-Treaters, a trail to attract egg-bearing bunnies, or a star-spangled patriotic mural that washes away easily after the celebration is over.
String lights, miniature flags, porch ornaments, and holiday-themed welcome mats are also fun ways to get in the holiday spirit.
To promote easy and fun decoration in your community, the social committee and board can review decoration options before making suggestions to homeowners. If your board really wants the community members to step up their game, the board could offer prizes and awards for the best decorated homes.
While guidelines and rules concerning holiday decorations can be essential to protecting homeowners’ rights and enjoyment of their properties, boards can also use communicating decoration guidelines as an opportunity to promote stylish décor and get the association excited about the coming holiday. To learn more about how to better serve your community and manage your responsibilities, check out our online training course for HOA board members and sign up today.