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May 9, 2022

Understanding Your Community's Architectural Request Review Process

Sponsored Content provided by Mike Stonestreet - Founder, CAMS (Community Association Management Services)

When you live in a community association, there are rules and regulations pertaining to the upkeep of the exterior of your property. But what if you'd like to make a change to your property, like paint your house or put up a new fence? That's where the Architectural Review Committee (ARC) comes in. This group is responsible for approving or denying any exterior changes to your home. So, if you're thinking about making some updates, it's essential to understand the role of the ARC and what they will be looking for when reviewing your proposal. 

In this post, we'll discuss who makes up the ARC, what they do, and how you can work with them to get approvals for your exterior projects. Let's get started!

What is the ARC?

An Architectural Review Committee – sometimes called an Architectural Review Board or Architectural Control Committee – is a committee that is either made up of volunteers or appointed by the board. This committee considers (and hopefully approves) initial building plans for a home or authorizes changes to the exterior of an existing home and its lot. The committee may also ensure compliance with approved plans. You'll usually find this type of group within planned developments, such as those found in homeowner and condo associations. Not every association has an ARC committee, but most do. In smaller communities, the board usually takes care of the duties handled by the ARC. 

Why Have an ARC?

Community associations were created to help protect the value of a neighborhood. How is this accomplished? Through the association's governing documents! These documents spell out the rules and regulations that all property owners within the community must follow. Enforcement of these documents is necessary to maintain the integrity and aesthetics of the neighborhood.

Who is on the ARC, and What Do They Do?

Associations have a board of directors composed of elected volunteers from the community. The board is responsible for enforcing the governing documents, and they do this by ensuring that all owners are following the community's rules and regulations. If an owner violates the governing documents, the board may issue warnings or eventually impose fines.

Community associations are often created with specific standards, particularly regarding the exterior appearance of homes in the community. But are these appearance standards based on the personal opinions of board members? Of course not! The use restrictions or architectural provisions can be found in an association's governing documents. However, they are also often in separate documents. The architectural guidelines dictate what you can and can't do with your property, including how it should appear. For this reason, many homes in planned communities may look similar, which contributes to the neighborhood's overall curb appeal and may even improve property values. 

That being said, living in a community association doesn't always give you much room to be creative or express yourself through exterior designs. However, this type of uniform design benefits homeowners in the end. The ARC's responsibilities may include checking the community for violations of the standards found in the Architectural Guidelines, and sometimes evaluating the existing policies and proposing any changes to the board.

What Do Property Owners Need to Know?

First, owners should have a copy of the governing documents so they may be aware of the rules regarding the exterior of their properties (and all other community rules and regulations). Architectural guidelines are a standard set of rules that homeowners must follow when designing or changing their homes. These rules may include how high your grass can grow, what colors can be used for siding, or whether a homeowner can add a deck. 

No two community associations have precisely the same guidelines, so it's essential to know yours before making significant changes. However, there are some things community associations can't ban across the board. For example, community associations can't prevent people from installing satellite dishes or antennae. But, they can restrict how big the dish can be, where it can be installed, or what kind of antennae can be installed. In addition, some states have passed laws protecting homeowners' rights to use solar collectors.

The association's covenants, conditions, and restrictions, commonly called "CC&Rs", define the rules governing the use of your piece of property. The ARC cannot make decisions that are less restrictive than or contradictory to the covenants. In addition, the government may define other boundaries affecting your application, e.g., laws related to stormwater management (impervious surface limits) or municipal ordinances, e.g., minimum setbacks from property lines. The ARC is not responsible for ensuring your compliance with these other entities; they are only responsible for ensuring that your request conforms with the association's governing documents and the overall aesthetics of the community. Therefore, you should consult the planning department before submitting your request to the association for ARC review when applicable.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway for owners is this: Don't give up just because your request was denied the first time. Instead, consider modifications and present those to the board or ARC. Did you submit thorough information to the ARC? If you didn't, try resubmitting with more details. Also, never start a project before it's approved in writing (even if you're sure it will be approved) – that can end up causing a world of trouble. 

What ARC Members Should Know

  1. When it comes to architectural requests from homeowners, HOAs must strike a balance between maintaining the integrity of the community and accommodating the needs of its residents. Therefore, all architectural request submissions must be in writing. The board or ARC will then review the request and make a decision based on the guidelines outlined in the association's governing documents. The board may approve the request with certain conditions or modifications in some cases. Other times, the board may deny the request outright. 
  2. Create a procedure for submitting requests and make sure owners are aware of these. This procedure will benefit your board, ARC, and community members and ensure equal treatment for all requests. What should the procedure include? A list of what you'll need from each owner submitting an ARC request, how submissions should be made, and if a review fee or construction deposit is required. Having a plan in place will make the process go smoothly and more quickly. Remember, once you've come up with a procedure, don't stray from it!
  3. Your governing documents will typically determine how long you have to render a decision on a request. Therefore, your board or committee absolutely must decide within that timeframe. An excellent way to ensure this is done is to meet regularly to discuss ARC requests – don't let them pile up for a month to find yourselves with one day to approve/deny everything. Or worse, some association's governing documents state that if an owner doesn't receive an answer within the allotted time, the request is considered automatically approved (here comes that bright pink house with three trampolines in the front yard!).
  4. What if someone's request would be approved if they made some slight changes? Tell them that! Don't just outright deny someone's request if there is a possibility it could be approved with a few alterations. And, if a request is outright denied, provide the owner with a very clear explanation (in writing) about the denial.
  5. Last but not least, if you have questions about whether you're following your governing documents and making the best decisions for your community, call your association's community manager or attorney. They'll be most up to date on community association laws in your state and be able to interpret your governing documents.
Things ARC Members Should Avoid:
  1. Firstly, don't deviate from the submission guidelines we discussed earlier. For example, if you allowed Dr. Cox to simply tell you about the fence he wants to put up and you approved it but required Dr. Kelso to provide very detailed drawings and photos, word will eventually get around the neighborhood.
  2. Next, avoid generalizing – carefully study each request, even if it's something you think your association would never approve. Sometimes, there may be a way to facilitate even the most bizarre request. And, try to keep your personal opinions out of it – just because JD wants to paint his house the color of an appletini and you hate green doesn't mean you can say no if your documents don't prohibit it.
  3. Keep in mind that there are some modifications your association must allow. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows people with disabilities to ask for reasonable modifications. What does this have to do with architectural control? A good example would be if someone needed to install a wheelchair ramp in the front of their home, which would otherwise go against your guidelines. You will still need to allow them to install it. However, the association may still make specifications about the color and materials used to build the ramp to remain uniform with the neighborhood's look.

Enforcing the governing documents of a community association and handling architectural requests from owners can be a challenging task. However, it is necessary to maintain the community's value. By working together, volunteer community leaders and owners can ensure that their community is a desirable place to live and property values are maintained.

Do you have questions about your community's governing documents and architectural review process? Reach out to the experts at CAMS for Trusted Guidance at 888.789.2624 or on our website.
Mike Stonestreet, CMCA, PCAM, AMS, is Founder/Co-Owner of CAMS (Community Association Management Services). CAMS began in 1991 with Stonestreet and a few employees in a small office in Wilmington but has since grown to over 300 employees serving eight regions across North and South Carolina.
His current role at CAMS focuses on mergers and acquisitions, culture alignment and high-level business relationships. Stonestreet is an active member of the NC Chapter of the Community Associations Institute (CAI) and has spent time on their board of directors, serving as the chapter President in 2019.


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