Q: A family in our community has several bird feeders in their backyard. Unfortunately, the feeders not only attract birds, they also attract rats. The rats come from adjacent woods and run from the bird feeders to neighboring yards and open garages. A committee member confronted the homeowners, but they refused to remove the feeders or to stop putting out seed. Other homes have feeders, but they do not attract rats. Can the board order the homeowner to remove the feeders? Is it fair to remove all feeders in the community because of one problem? — Port Charlotte, Florida.
A: How your association deals with problems like this can greatly affect your community’s quality of life, and how it is perceived by outsiders. A board that coldly demands obedience can provoke defiance and set itself on a path to trouble. On the other hand, a board that works to find solutions and builds support from the whole community frequently finds it easier to enforce rules when necessary.
KNOW THE PROBLEM
The villains here are the rats, not the bird feeders. Surely there are many residents who appreciate the feeders and the birds they attract. As your case shows, however, there is often a downside to even a seemingly harmless pastime. The health issues for the community are obviously important to the board, and it should get involved to eliminate a potential health hazard. However, banning all bird feeders to control this one problem is an extreme solution. It would hurt everyone, and may not solve the problem. See if you can find the real cause of the problem–why are this family’s feeders drawing rats when others in the community are not? Is it their location? Is it the type of feed being used? If you can discover the cause, it will be easier for the board to help the bird lovers control the rats and preserve their bird feeders.
Once you know how to deal with the rats, working with the homeowners should be easier and more effective. Be solution oriented. Approach the homeowners seeking resolution, not confrontation. If there is a lot of interest in the issue, which there may be since there are a number of bird feeders in the community, it could be the topic for an open forum at an upcoming meeting. Input from interested members of your community frequently helps find solutions. If the homeowners know that the board wants to find an answer that meets the whole community’s needs, you’re far more likely to get cooperation (instead of litigation). If eliminating the feeders is the only solution, several legal alternatives should be available. Solicit the help of local officials–the rats pose a health hazard and code enforcement may bring about the necessary solution. If the association must act for itself, check the governing statutes and documents for regulatory and enforcement powers, and for the remedies available to the board.
FIRM BUT FAIR
The association may have the power to fine, and everyone knows the persuasive power of money. Make sure there is a fair procedure for enforcing association rules, including notice to the homeowners involved, and an opportunity for them to present their position. More important, make sure the association follows its own procedures scrupulously. If litigation is inevitable, the court will be more receptive to the association’s position when it sees that the situation has been handled fairly and even-handedly, and that all other attempts to resolve the matter have been exhausted. The members of your association need to know that the board wants solutions that make the community better for everyone, and that the board will fairly and firmly enforce the rules. Associations that follow this approach should have fewer problems in the future.