Pet Peeves Making and Enforcing Fair Pet Rules

Pet Peeves

 Time was, if you said that a co-op or condo building was 'going to the dogs,' it  was a bad thing. These days however, that's not always the case. According to  the American Pet Products Association, 39 percent of all U.S. households own at  least one dog, and 33 percent own at least one cat. This is why many co-ops and  condos in New Jersey have started to change their rules regarding pets and  cultivate a more welcoming atmosphere for animals.  

 But not everyone is for the pets. Non pet-lovers cite noise, aggression and mess  as reasons for not wanting to share their building with their neighbors'  animals, and they feel that a duly elected board should have the right to limit  pet ownership. In many high-rise communities, people share corridors and  lobbies, and have limited access to floors via the elevator, which brings still  other issues into play. People may have animal allergies—or even phobias—and forcing them to share an elevator with people and their pets can be a  problem waiting to happen.  

 So how to promote peace among the four-legged and the two-legged inhabitants of  your building or association? The experts say it takes a combination of  courtesy, responsibility, accommodation, and respect; not just on the part of  pet owners, but of everyone who calls your community home.  

 Pets and the Law

 An issue that throws a wrench into the implementation of some pet rules concerns  shareholders or owners who need companion animals for medical reasons. While no  one would argue the right of a blind person to have a seeing-eye dog, or one  trained to recognize the signs of seizure or stroke and alert medical  personnel, other claims can seem questionable. Distinguishing a  medically-necessary companion animal from an ordinary pet can get very dicey—the definition of a 'companion animal' is so broad and far reaching, it can  easily be abused.  

 Is a cockatoo or a potbellied pig really what the doctor ordered to fight  depression or anxiety? Are each and every one of a resident's eight cats a  'medical necessity'? With the issue of therapy animals a common media topic and  official-looking companion animal 'certification' documents easily downloadable  from the web, it seems anyone can invent a plausible reason for why they  absolutely must be allowed to keep an animal in their home.  

 “Some landlords and co-ops think they are just better off never allowing  companion animals,” says Robert Marino, a real estate advisor, who served on his condo board for 11  years. “But there are a lot of benefits [to a building] in allowing them, because these  days, more and more people want to have them. More and more people have them  for reasons of disability—and when that happens, they have to be allowed anyway.  

 "A dog walking in a carpeted hallway causes no more damage than the parent with  a baby carriage—probably less damage,” Marino continues. “And dogs, except when they're very old, rarely urinate or defecate in a hallway  or lobby area. Boards should also realize that not only are you getting more  prospective renters and buyers with relaxed pet rules, but you can charge them  more money for rent, or have them pay a monthly pet fee.”  

 That's music to the ears of pet lovers, but for those who prefer for whatever  reason to have only two-legged neighbors, it strikes an unhappy chord. “At the end of the day, I believe a duly-elected co-op board of directors should  be permitted to make the decision on pet ownership in its co-op,” says one board president. “If the shareholders feel the board is acting arbitrarily and capricious in its  decision-making capacity, it can vote them out and elect a new board. That is  how democracy works, and a co-op in action is democracy at its most basic  level.”  

 Pets and the Law

 For condo buildings and HOAs looking to strike a peaceful balance between pet  enthusiasts and their counterparts, "There are a number of general rules that can help keep things calm," says  Melvyn Tarnopol, a partner with the law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP in Atlantic  City. "Weight limits are useful to the extent that other unit owners can be  afraid of large dogs. Condominiums can adopt leash rules so that dogs will not  bother other unit owners, particularly in common areas such as elevators.  Condos often limit the number of dogs or cats to two per household, to  encourage cleanliness. Condominiums also need to set up procedures whereby  neighbors can complain about noisy animals, and the pets are removed if their  owners cannot control them. Certainly, making owners responsible for the  behavior of their animals is a reasonable approach. Finally, unit owners can be  required to sign pet applications that provide that the owner shall be liable  for any damage caused by the pet."  

 How a co-op or condo association's particular pet rules are viewed in light of  the law varies from state to state and township to township.  

 However, "generally speaking, an outright ban on pets is enforceable if that ban  is set forth in either that condominium's bylaws or master deed," says David  Byrne, an attorney and partner with the Princeton-based law firm of Herrick,  Feinstein LLP. "In turn, should a condominium look to enact an outright ban  where one does not already exist, it's best practice to seek to place that ban  into either the bylaws or master deed. Any pet-related rules—typically—aside from an outright ban (i.e., leashes, registration fees, noise) can be  enacted by the condominium's board of directors, subject to the bylaws of that  condominium and the New Jersey's Condominium Act's provision regarding open  board meetings and binding decisions."  

 As in most things, co-op boards have more direct authority over residents' pet  ownership than do condo boards. “Unless it is in the offering plan and specifically says it would take a  two-thirds majority resident vote to do it, co-ops can prohibit pets or outlaw  any animals they want,” Marino says. “The courts have ruled consistently that they have the right to do it.”  

 When it comes to condos, it is more difficult to impose these types of rules  simply because the condo unit owner owns the apartment free and clear, rather  than simply owning shares of stock that allow the shareholder the right to buy,  sell and live in the unit. If a condo allowed pets in the past and have changed  their rules with the requisite majority vote, courts are likely to grandfather  in the community's pet-owning residents.  

 And just because pets are little doesn't mean they can't cost a building or HOA  big-time to remove them. In November of 2010 for example, an appeals court in  New York City ruled against a condominium that had tried to kick out a  Yorkshire terrier that had been living there before a pet ban was enacted in  2009. The appellate judges ruled that, while the condominium board had voted in  favor of the ban, it was not enforceable because it had not been properly  written into the bylaws and approved by 80 percent of the members. According to  an attorney involved in the case, the condominium spent a cool $100,000 trying  to evict a 3½ pound dog.  

 A Peaceable Kingdom

 Even if a building's pets are an extremely well-behaved bunch, all it takes is  one incident—an unpleasant experience in an elevator, a yapping puppy, an epic mess on the  lobby rug—to set off tensions between dog owners and non-dog owners. Elevators in  particular are a big issue, according to the pros. The small, enclosed space of  an elevator cab is not the ideal meeting place for an excitable pet.  

 Regardless of an association's official rules, the quickest, easiest solution to  pet conflict is some simple courtesy and sensitivity on the part of pet owners.  If you're walking your dog, and meet a neighbor at the elevator, ask them if  they're okay riding up or down with the animal. And remember, a leash is  mandatory at all times—and secondly, you might consider using a side entrance or other alternate route  rather than going straight through the lobby.  

 And it goes without saying that picking up after your pet is an absolute  necessity. According to one board president, “Although most non-dog owning people who live in the community are OK with it  being pet friendly, the two biggest issues have always been the failure of a  small minority of irresponsible pet owners to pick up after or leash their  dogs. As a result, you try to create a set of fair and reasonable house rules  that deal with the issues of pets and then enforce them.”  

 Marino says he often gets requests from co-ops and condos for recommendations on  creating rules that will keep pet owners and non-pet owners living in harmony.  

 “First of all, they should never ban breeds,” he says. “It’s actually been shown that smaller dogs have more bite incidents than larger  dogs, so breed and weight restrictions don’t make sense. You need to make sensible building rules, such as no dogs off  leashes in common areas, and if your dog has an accident, obviously, you need  to clean it up.”  

 Paper Protection

 For buildings welcoming pets, it’s important to have a pet addenda in the house rules spelling out the  expectations for the pet owner.  

 “What I recommend to buildings is to make everyone register their pets with the  management office,” Marino says. “Plus, show proof of licensing and vaccinations.” Insurance can also cover the resident if their pet gets into some sort of  altercation or trouble, and can protect the building as well. Just check with  your insurance broker.  

 For those wondering if a board can turn down a prospective buyer if he or she  admits to having animals and the rules don’t allow them—the answer is clear: A board should be able to turn down a prospective buyer  when there is a compatibility issue between the co-op or HOA's house rules  regarding pets and the prospective buyer who may have one.  

 According to Marino, regardless of whether you're okay in living with man’s best friend, “If everyone just is calm, cool and collected about pets, everyone can get along.”    

 Keith Loria is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey  Cooperator. Associate Editor Hannah Fons contributed to this article.  

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