Tom Wade knows intimately the stress and frustration caused by the Marshall Fire. His home of 31 years in Louisville was totally destroyed. He’s also president of the Coal Creek Ranch Homeowners Association, which had 162 homes burned by that massive blaze. In addition to rebuilding his own life, Wade is devoting time to helping members of his HOA get back to normal life as quickly as possible.

Wade’s situation is not unique. Five members of Coal Creek Ranch’s six-person board of directors had their homes destroyed by the Marshall Fire, Wade said.

That board was reorganized in January to specifically add “homeowners who had totally lost their homes, since getting homes rebuilt would be the primary focus of the board for the next year or two and we wanted total-loss homeowners to be well represented,” Wade said.

Responding to the Marshall Fire put immediate pressure on the new board, he said.

“Your average HOA board meets once a month,” Wade said. “The first two months after the fire, we were meeting almost weekly. We all had to get to know each other, and we had to start to wrap our heads around the task at hand.”

Six homeowners’ associations in Louisville had some homes destroyed by the fire, while two HOAs in Superior suffered such damage, according to municipal officials.

Being part of an HOA provides complications for homeowners whose homes were destroyed in the fire because their rebuilding efforts must conform to the policies and guidelines established by their HOA. An HOA is an owners’ association that handles such duties as managing and maintaining community property, such as pools or clubhouses, and enforcing the HOA’s diverse regulations, said Suzanne Leff, an attorney who has specialized in HOA law since 2004.  Owners are assessed a fee to pay for a management company and the costs of maintaining amenities and other property.

Anyone purchasing a home within an HOA is required to follow a wide range of rules laid out in governing documents called the Declaration of Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions. These “common-interest communities” are often formed with the idea of establishing and maintaining consistent architectural features, Leff said. Even custom-built homes will share some architectural features, she said.

“The idea is to have a common theme of development and people adhere to that and don’t get to choose an off-the-wall paint color that stands out in the community or some addition to their home that has a glaring aspect in that community,” Leff said. “There are a lot of people that perceive a benefit to that, that somebody is watching out to control against a lot of eccentricities in the community.”

Golfers play on the Coal Creek Ranch Golf Course, which borders homesite of HOA Board President Tom Wade, whose Louisville home was one of 1,084 destroyed in the fire throughout Boulder County and one of 162 affected in the area governed by his HOA. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

The challenge facing HOA boards affected by the Marshall Fire is to adhere to their covenants and maintain the look of their communities, while supporting their impacted homeowners’ efforts to rebuild. The Marshall Fire destroyed 15 homes in the Cherrywood II HOA in Louisville, 18% of that community’s units. That HOA outlined its approach to rebuilding on its member website:

“The HOA’s role is to protect property values, promote safety, aesthetic appeal, and generally improve our neighborhood’s quality of life … When our neighborhood was built several decades ago, the developer created the unifying aesthetic by building homes that shared common features like roof designs, placement of front doors, window and siding styles, color selection, garage placement, and landscaping features. Our goal is to provide (rebuilding) guidelines that reflect our community’s aesthetic qualities while allowing for the flexibility that will likely be needed to accommodate new building standards, materials, and the limited budgets that may be available given insurance coverage.”

The Rock Creek Homeowners Association, the largest HOA in Superior, adopted a new policy for rebuilding and new-home construction on Feb. 9, 2022. Rock Creek includes 2,804 single- and multifamily homes. About 80 were affected by the fire, said Kevin Colón, communications and community engagement manager for the town of Superior, in an email message.

Rock Creek’s policy clearly states that the HOA is only concerned with the exterior of the house, the footprint and landscaping. Homeowners don’t need association approval for their interior floor plan. However, the exterior of all new homes must have a style that is “harmonious” with the neighborhood, and the policy specifically prohibits certain styles of homes, including log cabins, A-frames and “modern, glass or boxy, flat-roofed homes.”

Written approval by the HOA’s Architectural Control Committee must be obtained before beginning to rebuild, even if the homeowner plans to rebuild the exact same model on the lot, according to that rebuilding policy.  The review and approval process generally takes 20 to 30 days but can take up to 45 days if a request is not typical. The policy says every effort will be made to expedite approvals for rebuilds when feasible.

Failure to get that approval can subject a homeowner to fines and the homeowner may be required to change or remove any work that does not comply with HOA guidelines at the homeowner’s expense.

Rock Creek’s rebuilding application process requires detailed information from the homeowner for its review process, including:

  • A plot plan showing the boundaries of the exterior walls of the proposed building, also called the “footprint,” with setbacks, dimensions and easements drawn to scale.
  • A conceptual rendering or sketch of the exterior elevations of the house.
  • Details regarding the size, shape, color and other elements of the proposed house’s exterior finishes, including product photos or brochures.

However, homeowners are free to choose whatever architect or builder they want.

Language about maintaining the look of a neighborhood is common in HOA architectural policies, but it can create hard feelings in situations where homeowners want to modify or ignore HOA guidelines in their rebuilding efforts. According to Coal Creek Ranch’s Wade, HOA boards face a “high-wire act,” needing to balance the desires of homeowners who need to rebuild with maintaining their community’s established “look” and following their governing documents.

“The bottom line is that when those homes burned down on December 30th, the covenants we all signed up for and agreed to did not burn down with them,” Wade said.

Coal Creek Ranch HOA Board President Tom Wade said the board is still working to support homeowners who were not impacted by the Marshall Fire, such as by fixing a shower at the community pool, to ensure all members feel represented by the board. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Coal Creek Ranch HOA Board President Tom Wade said the board is still working to support homeowners who were not impacted by the Marshall Fire, such as by fixing a shower at the community pool, to ensure all members feel represented by the board. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

While Coal Creek Ranch lost 162 homes to the Marshall Fire, that represents only one-third of the community’s housing stock.

The board has to represent “all the people of Coal Creek Ranch,” Wade said. “Certainly, we have to bend over backwards to help in any way we can the total-loss homeowners, but we still have responsibilities to all the homeowners.”

His board has tried to make the rebuilding process more flexible by “relaxing” some guidelines — reducing the amount of masonry required for the front of houses, for example

“The goal was to give homeowners as much lateral movement as possible and not overly constrict them,” Wade said. “Give them some freedom to change things as they see fit, short of saying there are no rules, anything goes.”

Requests from owners of destroyed homes to be exempted from paying assessments are another issue some HOA boards have faced. It’s “probably not” legal for an HOA board to let individual owners stop paying assessments in that situation, Leff said.

“Most of the covenants that are recorded against these properties probably do not anticipate the type of disaster that occurred with the Marshall Fire. Because they don’t anticipate this kind of disaster, there is probably a very clear requirement that all owners have to pay assessments and there is no exception to that,” she said.

An HOA’s governing declaration can be amended to change such requirements, but that is a complicated process.

“If the declaration or CC&Rs has to be amended, that would require an owner vote, and that usually is 67% of the entire membership or the entire vote of the membership to approve a change to the recorded covenant,” Leff said.

While the Coal Creek Ranch board has prioritized the needs of total-loss homeowners, they have also tried to do “normal HOA things,” Wade said, such as fixing an outdoor shower at the community pool and holding a Fourth of July party for homeowners. Several board members will be at that party, he said, available to talk with homeowners about their shared concerns regarding the rebuilding process.

The board members are “in the same boat” as other total-loss homeowners, Wade said. “We want the same thing. We want to rebuild and get back to normal as soon as possible. It’s going to be awhile, but you do the best you can every day to try to make it as good as you can every day. What else can you do?”


List of HOAs Affected by Marshall Fire

Superior

  • Rock Creek HOA – 2,804 units
  • Ridge at Superior HOA – 72 units

Louisville

  • Coal Creek Ranch – 486 units
  • Cherrywood II HOA – 85 units
  • Grove at Harper Lake – 89 units
  • The Summit – 70 units
  • Centennial Heights West – 36 units
  • Club Homes at Coal Creek – 77 units

Sources: Kevin Colón, Communications and Community Engagement Manager, town of Superior; David Donnelly, HOA Information Officer, Colorado Division of Real Estate; Lisa Ritchie, Fire Recovery and Planning Manager, city of Louisville

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Rich Sheehan
2022-07-02 14:55:52
Boulder Daily Camera
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