It's a familiar covenant in most New Jersey leases. The rules and regulations allowing pets may differ from association to association but the gist is the same. If you live in a multi-unit building or community and you want to keep pets, there are going to be rules.
Part of the Family
For those of us who own pets, whether they're dogs, cats, birds or guinea pigs, there can be no doubt that our animals are considered part of the family. Because the emotional connection to any pet is such a strong bond, creating and enforcing restrictions about residents' pets is often a challenging task. However, rules regarding pets in any building or association are there for a good reason —they're in place not only for the safety and comfort of the residents, but for the safety and comfort of the pets themselves. Boards and management should strive to draft fair and sensible pet rules and unit owners and shareholders must adhere to them for the well-being of both the community and Fifi and Fido, too.
Put it in Writing
In the hierarchy of governing documents, the New Jersey Condominium Act provides for an association to set reasonable rules and restrictions concerning the details, operation and use of the common elements. According to Article XI, Section 6:11.01 (c), "no reptile or animal of any kind shall be raised, bred, or kept in any unit or anywhere else within the condominium except as permitted by the Rules and Regulations of the Association." Secondly, the community's bylaws allow the board to adopt, amend and publish rules and regulations, which may include "pet controls" of some sort.
According to Audrey Wisotsky, a partner with the Princeton-based law firm Pepper Hamilton and outgoing chair of the New Jersey chapter of the Community Associations Institute (CAI) Legislative Action Committee, leash rules and limits on the number of pets a person can keep "are typically found in an association's Declaration of Covenants, [Conditions] and Restrictions (CC&R). Leash laws are usually municipal regulations, though they're sometimes also in the governing documents. The HOA establishes rules and regulations to protect their common areas, and if the community is subject to registration, restrictions against pets would be communicated in public offerings statements."
For example, consider the rules and regulations adopted by The Cedars at Basking Ridge Condominium Association regarding pets. Pets are a permitted use within the community's rules and regulations but owners are expressly responsible for the animal's behavior. The section reads as follows:
"PETS: A. No animals, livestock, reptiles or poultry of any kind shall be raised, bred, or kept in any unit or upon Common Elements. Dogs, cats or other domesticated household pets are permitted and are not to exceed two (2) in the aggregate, per unit. Permitted pets may not be kept, bred or maintained for any commercial purpose. Pet owners are responsible for any damage, noise or inappropriate behavior of their pets on Limited and Common Elements. No dogs are permitted to remain unattended on any Limited or Common Element.
B. All pets must be housed within the units only.
C. Outside dog/cat cages, runs, tethers or any other manner of securing such an animal is not permitted at anytime.
D. No dog shall be permitted to run free at any time and all dogs must be on a leash when using the common elements.
E. It is the responsibility of the animal's owner to repair any damage done to the common elements and to clean up any excrement or debris left by the animal."
David Byrne is an attorney with Stark & Stark, a Lawrenceville law firm that represents community associations throughout the Garden State. Byrne says every community association he's come across has had at least a few rules in place when it comes to pets.
"It could be as simple as picking up after your pet or as extreme as not allowing any animals at all." Byrne says that the reasons behind these rules start with the bigger picture in mind. "The person who created the founding documents thought [imposing pet rules] was important in order to sell homes."
It's not hard to imagine that selling a home would be difficult if a cat or a dog had damaged the unit and the whole place smelled like a barn. These are some of the outcomes board members and management companies try to avoid by putting pet rules in place. But there are other reasons for pet rules that important to the residents currently living in the association.
"Most HOA's limit or restrict pet ownership because they want to avoid damage to the property," says Byrne, "that's why most, if not all, governing documents prohibit keeping livestock. But with animals like dogs, [the documents are] focused on nuisances, too. If the building is a high-rise, there will be weight on the floor and noise. In a suburban setting, the rules are founded primarily on property protection—landscaping maintenance, for example—because the association feels that with pet membership, there will be some impact to the property."
"Oftentimes, people just don't like the nuisance that comes with animals," says Wendell Smith, a senior partner at Greenbaum Rowe Smith & Davis LLP in Woodbridge, and co-author of the book, New Jersey Condominium & Community Association Law. "In a high-rise or apartment building, some people don't want dogs in the elevators with them or in the lobby—they feel threatened. Some people have problems with the noise." Smith feels that it's up to the building and board to decide what decisions they want to make regarding pets, as those choices will impact future buyers. "I draw up a lot of documents for developers, but we try to leave it up to the board," he says.
Bad Dog—No Treat!
As with violation of any HOA bylaw, there are consequences for those who do not adhere to regulations regarding pets. What might seem like a harmless bending of the rules can escalate quickly.
"Communication is essential—most violations occur not because people don't care about the rules, but because they don't know them," says Smith, who has seen disputes over pets get ugly—and expensive.
"We had one case with a problem pet and a problem owner that ended up costing over $13,000. We imposed fines and legal fees and went through arbitration and mediation."
While no pet dispute has to go that far, it certainly can happen. The best way to avoid that kind of drama is to understand what your HOA's rules are and respect them. Smith says that if you violate a pet restriction and are caught or reported, usually the first thing that happens is the logging of an informal complaint by the individual who discovered the infraction. If no reparative action is taken, a formal complaint usually follows. If that doesn't work, then mediation and arbitration are engaged and fines begin to accrue. You can't evict or terminate a tenant in a condo dwelling, but that rule doesn't apply to pets, especially if they're dangerous. In the absolute worst case scenario, Smith says you could get an injunction to have a pet removed from the premises, which would require a court order and would most likely involve animal control professionals.
"Communication is important, of course," agrees Wisotsky. "Boards should have meetings to discuss rules with community members, and newsletters are a good forum, too. But if a person is purchasing the unit or property, they should know of those restrictions being in place—the documents they signed detail that. A lot of people who purchase in non-pet communities do so on purpose."
But what if you feel that your HOA's pet rules are truly unfair and you want a change? Byrne says, "The Condo Act provides that a majority can overturn a rule, but in 12 years of doing this, I haven't seen it happen."
Smith points out that sometimes, people try to slide out of rules they feel are unfair or arbitrary, but that you can't just disregard rules simply because you think they're silly. If your HOA has a weight restriction on pets and your Yorkshire terrier starts eating too much Purina, you might have a problem on your hands, even though five pounds seems like a pretty harmless change. "A pet weight regulation in place when you move in that dictates there can be no dogs over 20 pounds may seem arbitrary," says Smith, "but it's in the contract."
Talk to the Animals
Both experts agree that communication is key for the enforcement of any rule in an HOA, especially where pets are concerned. In New York, there exists a so-called "Pet Law," wherein if an animal lives in a home "openly and notoriously" for 90 days, a board can't order it removed from the premises, even if there's a rule on the books that says the pet isn't allowed.
Not so in New Jersey. Byrne notes that it's up to the board to communicate what the rules actually are so that people don't break them unknowingly. "A judge can rule here and there that a co-op has waived its rights by not enforcing a rule, but no, we definitely don't have a similar law in New Jersey."
Byrne also says that while it's not terribly common for a building to ban animals entirely, it does happen. These situations often get sticky, because sometimes the governing documents aren't clear. "If the community's governing documents are silent about pets and the building has them, it would only be permissible to ban the animal if it were put into the bylaws through an amendment."
Of course, there are always exceptions.
"You have to recognize that under the Fair Housing Act, reasonable accommodations are made for the disabled," says Smith. Pets are engaged in numerous duties for a variety of disabled persons' needs, most commonly in the case of seeing-eye dogs. More and more, however, individuals with terminal illnesses are employing dogs and cats and other animals simply as companions. In these less clear-cut cases, Smith says documentation is a good idea. "A note from the doctor is all you really need—if you've got that, it shouldn't be a problem."
For her part, Wisotsky says she hasn't overseen a serious pet-related complaint in years. "There was one dispute almost 17 years ago where a community that didn't allow pets had a problem with an owner who kept a pet," she says. "But when you have declared restrictions like that and they're violated, you have to abide by them."
According to a recent Gallup poll, 45 percent of Americans own dogs and 34 percent own cats. The vast majority of co-op and condo developers and board members recognize this—many of them are pet owners themselves—and often rule that pets are okay, as long as certain guidelines are set. As a member of a co-op or condo, it's up to the individual to understand and respect the guidelines so that you, your neighbors and Fifi or Fido can all live happily ever after.
Mary Fons is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the New Jersey Cooperator.