Committee for a Better Twin Rivers v. Twin Rivers Homeowners’ Association
On Thursday, January 4, 2007, the New Jersey Supreme Court heard oral argument on the matter of Committee for a Better Twin Rivers v. Twin Rivers Homeowners’ Association. The Supreme Court’s forthcoming opinion – which is not expected for several months – may prove to be the one of the most influential decisions involving common interest community associations in over a decade.
At issue in Twin Rivers is the question of whether the New Jersey Constitution’s speech and assembly clauses should be applied to limit the authority of homeowners’ associations and, if so, under what circumstances. In the decision on appeal, Committee for a Better Twin Rivers v. Twin Rivers Homeowners’ Association, 383 N.J. Super. 22 (App. Div. 2006), which was authored by Judge Kestin, the Appellate Division found that common interest community associations have supplanted certain responsibilities once undertaken by towns and municipalities and that state constitutional rights to free speech outweigh certain restrictions imposed by homeowners associations, even though such property is private rather than public.
The argument before the Justices of the Supreme Court was fascinating and even heated at times, sprinkled with moments of levity. The Twin Rivers Homeowners’ Association argued that the Appellate Division’s decision to apply a constitutional standard was too expansive and advocated instead the use of the “business judgment rule”, which was utilized by the Trial Court in its original decision. The Association asserted that Judge Kestin “blurred the distinction” between a public entity, such as a township or municipality, and a private entity, such as a homeowners’ association, arguing that the state Constitution can only apply to public entities. Committee for a Better Twin Rivers – the group of residents who challenged the Association’s rules and regulations – argued that the Court should embrace the Appellate Division’s decision, stating that here the common interest community Association effectively stifled the residents’ freedoms of speech and assembly and created a “bubble of no-speech zones”.
During the argument, Chief Justice James R. Zazzali went so far as to call the Appellate Division’s decision “creative,” and focused on whether the Association should be considered the functional equivalent of a town or municipality. Justice Barry T. Albin commented that the Appellate Division’s decision appeared to require submission of even the most trivial issues – such as the posting of political signs or access to a community newsletter or common element like a meeting room – to be heard by a Superior Court Judge, which would open the floodgates for increased amounts of litigation. But perhaps the most vocal advocate for the Association’s position was Justice Roberto A. Rivera-Soto, who called the Committee’s various challenges of the Association’s rules “petty, not constitutional.”
The Supreme Court will now be left to determine whether the Appellate Division’s decision ultimately went too far and was too expansive, leaving common interest community associations without clear and defined parameters as to the ability to enforce their rules and regulations, as well as to uphold the rights and responsibilities of their members.
Stark & Stark will continue to monitor this significant case and provide timely updates. If you would like to discuss the Twin Rivers opinion and how it affects condominium associations in more detail, please contact one of the attorneys in Stark & Stark’s Community Associations Group.