What Homeowners’ Associations Can Learn from Golf

March 10, 2017
Aaron S. Marines

The United States Golf Association (the USGA)and the Royal and Ancient Gold Club of St. Andrews (the R&A) generally write the official rules for golf for the world.  Last week, they announced sweeping proposed changes to the Rules of Golf.  I think that condominium and homeowners’ association boards can learn something from the proposed rules changes.

  1. Sometimes Rules can be too complicated. Currently there are 34 Rules of Golf.  To explain these Rules, there is an over 800 page book of Decisions.  For example, there are six different Decisions that govern when a golf ball overhangs the lip of the hole. When there are too many Rules and Decisions, many golfers do not know exactly what applies to them.

In associations, if there are too many Rules and Regulations, and if they are too complicated, they are hard for people to follow.  Think about your architectural review procedures.  Does a homeowner understand what they need to do to process a request to change something?  If your regulations attempt to cover every situation that could possibly arise, then owners are not going to read or understand them.  And if they don’t understand them, they are not going to follow them.

  1. Too few Rules is a problem, too. For hundreds of years, there were only two rules of golf:  Play the ball as it lies, and play the course as you find it. That was fine when golf was only played by Scottish farmers, hitting a sheep intestine filled with feathers around a pasture. But the simple rules fell apart the first time someone hit a ball into the water (or “the Scholars’ Holes or the soldiers’ lines,” whatever those were).  There needed to be some new rules to account for the new facets of the game.

In associations, sometimes the Rules and Regulations were established by the Developer.  They may have been created so that the Developer could sell houses, without thinking how they would affect future unit owners. When people live closely to one another, as in an association, the simple rules might not work with the expectations of the community.  For example, for a community established in the early 1980’s, no one needed to worry about things like skateboards, satellite dishes, portable basketball hoops, laser decorations, drones, pit bulls or problems like having too many renters or too many cars to park per unit.  The original Rules may be too simple to fit the needs of the Community.

  1. It is never too late to look at your Rules. The people who make the Rules of Golf are not exactly a progressive group.  The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews was founded in 1754.  The first written rules of golf were created in 1755 by the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith. [One of my favorites from the 1744 rules is “At holling you are to play your ball honestly at the hole, and not to play upon your adversary’s ball, not lying in your way to the hole.”  Which means this rule has been broken for 270 years.] From the 1890’s until the present day, the R&A has been the steward of the Rules of Golf.  But this literally ancient establishment decided to look at its Rules, and to make them fit the game as it is played today.  The changes seek to greatly simplify golf, taking the number of rules from 34 to 24. Many of these new rules simplify the game, such as what happens when you hit your ball into a hazard, or how you take a drop.

Communities change, because of turnover in the unit owners, changes in the surrounding neighborhood, costs of repairs or replacements, or the size and kinds of pets that people keep.  It is the responsibility of association Boards to make sure that the Rules and Regulations reflect the realities of the Community.  Sometimes it is a big job, and it can cause disagreements in the Community.  But in the end, having a relevant set of Rules and Regulations helps everyone.

  1. Sometimes intent is important. Two of my favorite changes in the Rules of Golf are the elimination of penalties if you accidentally move your ball while looking for it in the weeds, or if your ball moves accidentally on the green (such as Dustin Johnson in the 2016 US Open).  Those Rules and Decisions used to have zero tolerance – it was a one stroke penalty.  Under the proposed changes, if the ball moves by accident, you replace it and continue on.

When enforcing Rules and Regulations, associations should sometimes look at intent of the unit owner.  If someone legitimately was confused about the Rule that is being violated, the Board should consider the best way to bring the unit owner back into compliance.  One of our classic examples of this is with unpermitted deck construction or colors. Frequently a new Board will inherit a situation where owners put in decks or changed colors without permission.  In many of those circumstances, the old Board neglected to enforce the Regulations.  When trying to bring those units into compliance, a Board can and should consider how to enforce the Regulations in a way that does not excessively penalize the unit owner for a unknowing violation.

  1. Ask for help. Finally, the revisions to the Rules of Golf are not final.  The USGA and the R&A have published these proposals, but have asked for reactions.  Anyone who wants to comment can do so. The governing bodies are going to take comments for six months, and consider them.

In my experience, rewriting Rules and Regulations is most successful when involvement goes beyond the Board members. When Boards form committees to consider the Rules and Regulations, the changes are almost always better received by the Community.  There are a handful of possible reasons for this:  you get a wider variety of viewpoints; you get people who have not been used to considering the problems and enforcement of the current Rules; the committees have more time and energy to work on a specific task instead of all of the operations of the Association; and sometimes, unit owners feel like they had a say, rather than just having the Board dictate the new standards.

If a Board creates a committee to evaluate and change the Rules and Regulations, they should give it resources to succeed.  That may mean allowing the committee to meet with the Association attorney – without the Board controlling that discussion.  Or they could inform the committee of the costs of the extra maintenance or regulation that the committee is considering.  When the Board asks for help writing Rules and Regulations, the need to make the fullest use of that help.

Soon the weather will break, and some of us will be on the golf course.  Maybe we will be playing with new Rules of Golf.  Maybe these changes to golf will spur associations to update their own rules, that affect their homes, and not just their handicaps.

Aaron Marines is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his law degree from Widener University and practices in a variety of areas including Commercial and Residential Real EstateLand Use, Land Planning and Zoning matters.  We are still trying to determine if he is a stickler for the rules of golf or if he just likes to share his knowledge of the rules.