Q: Pet owners in our community continually ignore the rules and regulations. In particular, they fail to clean up pet feces or keep their pets on leashes. How can we make these rules stick? Also, we have not been enforcing a rule that prohibits owners from having more than one pet per unit. Should we implement a grandfather clause and make new residents relocate pets that violate the one-per-unit rule?–Woodbury, Connecticut
A: For many people, pets are a source of comfort, joy, and pleasure. In a community association, they also can be a source of consternation, controversy, and even litigation. Pet rules are undoubtedly some of the most difficult rules to enforce, raising problems and emotions to levels more pedestrian issues can1t match. Next to parking issues, enforcing pet rules is arguably the single-most volatile issue in a community association — and a frequent source of political turmoil. To enforce these rules without starting a dogfight, diplomacy is important, as is a solid commitment to promoting your community’s values.
The best way to make you rules “stick” is to stick by them. Rules cannot exist in a vacuum. They should not be created in the abstract, they should not be left to their own forces once they’re adopted. If your rules are well grounded and well thought out, you have the beginnings of an effective enforcement system. But enforcement is just that — enforcement. Your rules, whether they regulate pet waste or parking places, will have little effect unless the board shows it believes in them and is willing to take action to enforce them. (And like any rule, your pet rules should be fair and reasonable, as should your enforcement procedures.) If residents know the board lacks the institutional courage to police the community, they are less likely to follow the rules. If your neighbors know the board levies fines against violators, and will go to court to back up those fines or seek injunctive relief, the number of violators will dwindle. Soft enforcement may be a big reason why the pet owners in your community aren’t cleaning up after their pets. It may take harsh action, possibly more than once, but a consistent and solid record of enforcement will ultimately bring the results you want.
ONE PET OR TWO?
You mentioned that you have a rule prohibiting owners from keeping more than one pet in their units. Ask yourself some questions. Why are you limiting owners to one pet? Is it necessary? What are you trying to accomplish? Are there alternatives? Review your documents and make sure you understand the nature of the board’s authority. Also make sure the rule is necessary. Of course, if your one-pet-per-unit rule is part of your covenants, it will carry greater weight than if it is one of your board’s rules.
Grandfathering rules is a real test of your board’s political skill. With the emotions attached to pets, grandfathering can become explosive — especially since it was the association’s inaction that lulled owners into believing multiple pets were permitted. If you decide on some sort of grandfather clause, be sure to provide an effective pet registration system. But remember: while grandfathering is often an attempt to respect pet lovers’ rights, it can backfire. Eventually you’ll face some owners who want to replace a pet, or you’ll become involved in a dispute about whether a particular dog or cat is the same animal that lived in the community before the new policy took effect. Whatever you decide, make your policy decision with the input of your residents and owners, and make sure that you publicize the new policy and its effective date.