Appearance Wasn’t Everything When It Came to Garage Compliance

Appearance Wasn’t Everything When It Came to Garage Compliance

The ability to control the appearance of homes and other improvements in a planned community is a selling point for homeowners who want to ensure that their neighborhood is nicely maintained and that unsightly decorations or design schemes are kept at bay. Typically, aesthetic requirements are found in the governing documents. However, in a recent surprising court battle, it was ruled that the purpose—not appearance—of a newly built garage within a planned community was the determining factor in whether the homeowners had violated the association’s declaration.

In that case, a homeowners association declaration permitted garages that are attached to a home, and accessory structures that are not used for storage and that are deemed acceptable by the design review committee. Two homeowners’ request to build a detached “garage” on their property was denied by the association because the declaration allowed only those garages that are attached to a house. The homeowners built the garage without the association’s approval. The association sent the homeowners a letter asking them to comply with the declaration. The homeowners asked a trial court for a declaratory judgment that they were not in violation of the declaration.

The homeowners asserted that, because the structure’s actual use wasn’t as a garage to store vehicles, but rather to host parties and do woodworking projects, it complied with the declaration. The trial court agreed that, because the structure wasn’t used as a garage or storage area, it didn’t violate the declaration. Although the structure had two overhead garage-style doors, the exterior of the structure “isn’t determinative of what it actually is,” the trial court concluded. The association appealed, but a Pennsylvania appeals court upheld the trial court’s decision.

On appeal, the association contended that the structure violates the declaration’s: (1) type restriction, which prohibits detached “garages”; and (2) use restriction, because such structures cannot be used for storage.

The association argued that the structure’s outward appearance—namely, its two overhead garage doors—establish that it is a detached garage. The appeals court noted that, according to the declaration, the only restriction on the outward appearance of an accessory structure is that it must “exactly match” the design and materials of the house; here, it does, meaning that it doesn’t violate the type restriction.

The appeals court said that the structure conforms to the use restrictions because it is used primarily for woodworking and recreational purposes, and any storage in the structure is a byproduct of the woodworking and recreational activities [Zimliki v. New Brittany II Homeowners’ Association, October 2015].