You can ask for… and not receive… a variance.
A primary purpose of any property owners association is to preserve property values. It does this by spelling out building standards and restrictions in its CC&Rs (covenants, conditions, and restrictions).
The key word here is restrictions.
At issue for many trying to rebuild is the restriction that new homes be 1200 square feet of living space or larger. Many are finding this difficult because their original home had a smaller footprint or they were under insured or today's building codes are beyond their financial means.
To the concerns of residents caught in this bind, our Paradise Pines Property Owners' Association Board has responded that "you can always ask for a variance."
When a variance request came up at a recent POA Board Meeting it became clear that actually getting a variance was not so easy. A long time POA resident was asked to stand and state his request. He did so. Then he was peppered by Board members as to his finances, basically asking him questions about his handling of his own money and his insurance settlement. The kinds of questions that bankers ask when deciding whether to loan you real money. As in, "Didn't you have enough money to rebuild at 1200 square feet before you decided to buy an RV for your son?"
Yes, he bought an RV for his handicapped son who couldn't live in a shelter after the fire.
To say the least, it was awkward. Never mind that he had lived and maintained a home in the POA for 21 years with nary a complaint against him. Never mind that 21 neighbors supported his request for a variance to build a 1000 square foot home that was certainly up to POA standards in quality. Never mind that the Architectural Control Committee, appointed by the Board, recommended granting the waiver. The Board passed judgement on his handling of his own money. Like bankers do. And denied it.
Any waiver request has to meet certain criteria: the requestor must be a POA member in good standing, and all neighbors within 500 feet of the property must agree. (Since neighbors are scattered far and wide, that last bit is a roadblock too high for many.) But there is no published criteria to guide the POA member who seeks a variance based on financial hardship. Or limit to what Board members can ask.
While the POA Board has an obligation to protect property values, does it not also have an obligation to help members rebuild? When is adherence to the CC&R's a hindrance to member well-being and enjoyment of their property? When is the letter of the law more important than the spirit of the law?
Instead of taking on the guise of financial judge and jury, the POA Board should limit itself to asking: 1) Does the ACC (Architectural Control Committee) recommend for or against the variance? 2) Is the member in good standing? 3) Do the neighbors who can be reached agree? 4) Have any complaints been filed against the member?
Those tests should be sufficient to grant the variance, especially after a disaster as devastating to home and property as the Camp Fire.
If these questions are not sufficient, then the POA Board should publish its criteria for granting a financial hardship waiver and openly declare that their purpose doesn't lie in helping members rebuild.