Thursday, January 04, 2007

Restricted Freedoms in Central NJ?

Twin Rivers, a community in East Windsor governed by homeowners' association, had their day in Our Fair State's Supreme Court today. The association is being sued by a group of residents who feel their rights are being violated by the restrictive rules on free speech issues such as where political signs can be placed, and such trivialities as whether a particular screen door may be used. From Sunday's Star Ledger:

The legal dispute began in 2000 when a group of homeowners sued in state court, claiming they were being deprived of free speech and assembly. They said the association's rules allowed political signs only in obscure and isolated locations not easy to see; people who were not part of the association's board or committees were not given the same access to the community room and had to pay; and access to the community newsletter was not equal.
Initially, a trial court judge rejected their claims and agreed with the Twin Rivers Homeowners Association. The Mercer County judge ruled the dissident residents had agreed to the conditions when they purchased their properties.
However, in February 2006, a unanimous appeals court overturned the decision, ruling the state Constitution should apply. That decision -- the first of its kind in the country -- set the stage for the current showdown.

It's been a hot topic here in the Center of NJ for quite a while. This is a big issue not just for the residents of Twin Rivers, but for the estimated 1.2 million people in Our Fair State who live in homeowners' associations. This case is being watched closely as precedent.

So, one has to wonder, weren't the folks notified before they bought in that there were rules?

For some residents, moving into a community is all they can afford, and others don't know about the rules, the lawyers argued.
Indeed, (Margaret)Bar-Akiva said she had no idea about the rules when she and her husband bought a townhouse in 1984. "This house was available, we bought it. We didn't even know there was a board," said Bar-Akiva.

There's a lesson there about reading the fine print, I'm sure. But one way or another, it sounds like freedoms, particularly speech, are being restricted by the association- the question is, is it legal? Do the contractual homeowners' association rules trump constitutional rights? Owners of homes all over the country will watch to see what the our Supreme Court says on this one.

(cross-posted at Blue Jersey)

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