‘Tis the Season…or Is It? Celebrating Holiday Cheer

‘Tis the Season…or Is It?

Most everyone has fond memories of celebrating holidays at home, school, church or synagogue, and maybe even in a town square or community center. Holidays offer a break from routine, usually different foods and treats—maybe even gifts! These special days are also a good excuse to put up seasonal decorations, not just in individual residences, but in the common areas and shared outdoor spaces of multifamily buildings and associations. Lights, garlands, banners—they can all contribute to a warm, festive atmosphere when done tastefully and with some friendly consideration for the diversity of today's condo communities.

It's a Small World

Time was, the definition of holiday decorating was almost exclusively limited to Christmas trees, creches, menorahs, and angels. A movement towards recognizing diversity in the early ‘90s expanded peoples' awareness of different holidays and cultural celebrations, and inspired many multifamily communities to acknowledge and celebrate the heritage and holidays of their own diverse populations.

While few would argue against inclusivity and sensitivity toward one's neighbors—particularly those living in very heterogenous urban areas—handling holiday decorating and events among a diverse array of residents may pose a few concerns for both residents and board members as everyone strives to maintain a fair (and legal) approach to seasonal displays. In addition to being neighborly and respectful of the various cultures represented in a community, there are also the issues of what is considered aesthetically pleasing and safe.

Finding My Religion

Perhaps the best way for an HOA board to begin formulating a holiday decoration plan is to reach a consensus on which holidays will be recognized for community celebrating and decorating. A good place to start is at the top, with the national holidays recognized by the federal government. A quick visit to USA.gov provides an annually updated list with specific dates for all federal holidays, and other commonly observed occasions for celebration.

The 2015 federal holiday list displayed below from USA.gov provides a basic template for community planning: Thursday, January 1, New Year’s Day; Monday, January 19, Martin Luther King Day; Monday, February 16, Washington’s Birthday; Monday, May 25, Memorial Day; Friday, July 3, Independence Day; Monday, September 7, Labor Day; Monday, October 12, Columbus Day; Wednesday, November 11, Veteran’s Day; Thursday, November 26, Thanksgiving; and Friday, December 25, Christmas Day.

But it seems the area of most contention is concentrated in religious holidays, as people of all faiths and denominations, seek to celebrate their own sacred day. Typically, the declaration only refers to overall holiday décor rather than specific holidays—despite the fact that residents tend to get into the largest number of holiday decoration arguments in the month of December. But if they already know that they’re limited by how many flashing lights, menorahs, or other obtrusive items they can put up in the common areas, they can apply the same knowledge to other holidays, such as the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving.

There have been many legal battles regarding religious items—most recently a case in Chicago about a mezuzah being removed from a door post of a Jewish family’s unit—so lawyers recommend that associations don’t attempt to restrict anyone on the basis of religion. The Chicago case that made headlines was settled, but others cropped up around the country. A similar case in Texas led to a state bill signed in 2011 requiring homeowner associations to permit religious displays on residents' doors, including mezuzahs. Florida enacted a similar law in 2008.

While a board may not want to formally recognize Groundhog Day, Arbor Day, or Earth Day, it is wise to be aware of these occasions and to formulate a policy on decorations and celebrations in the common areas. For instance, February 14 is not recognized as a federal holiday, but Valentine’s Day is a well-loved opportunity for celebrations and parties, just like Halloween celebrated every October 31. Once the board decides which holidays will be recognized, it is time to draft a formal policy relating to holiday décor.

…And Where to Draw the Lines

Kenneth Donkel, principal of the Law Offices of Kenneth Donkel in Tinley Park recommends a straightforward approach to seasonal decorating etiquette. “First and foremost, the board should put the matter on the agenda for a board meeting and get the owners' input on what they do or do not want, he says. We all know that getting owners to attend a board meeting is sometimes difficult, but the directors of condominium associations, townhome associations, and common interest community associations all have to deal with the question of holiday décor from owners, namely, 'Can we decorate? When can we decorate? How much is too much? Which holidays can we observe?’ ”

In addition to board meetings, Donkel recommends sending out questionnaires to gather information and input from the residents. “Hopefully, the members will respond and give the board some insights as to what the majority agrees is appropriate. The board can then come to a consensus and adopt rules which the members can abide by.”

Those rules need to be specific to the property, and should be clear, concise, and fair. When it comes to decorating, all exterior areas should be addressed: balconies, driveways, fire escapes, doors and so forth. Will lights be allowed for any and all holidays, or only specific ones? Is any color or style of lights acceptable, or must they all be the same in order to present a uniform appearance? How far in advance of a holiday may lights and decorations be displayed, and how soon do they have to be taken down afterward? There is also the question of what daily time frame exterior lights may be burned. Is on at dusk and off a dawn?—a workable schedule, or should exterior lights be extinguished earlier, say at midnight? This may seem like a lot of trivial questions, but formulating a policy and spelling it out for everyone in the community will save time and confusion later.

Rules and Respect

Donkel believes once the rules are spelled out they should apply to all holidays. This “one size fits all” approach is easier to understand, remember, and enforce. He suggests that once the rules for decorating for holidays are established, copies should be distributed by the Board to all owners. “Not all members may wish to participate, and that is their right,” he states. “But the board should still adopt uniform rules, be consistent in their enforcement, be reasonable and treat everyone equally and with respect.”

Nick Sundberg, director of building services for American Community Management, Inc. in Downers Grove agrees with Donkel on a uniform approach for decorations. “As a rule of thumb, all Holidays should be treated the same,” he says. In matters where religious issues are involved, Sundberg believes it is probably best to obtain legal counsel from your association's lawyer. In his experience, Sundberg usually finds holiday decorations addressed as a sub-article under general decorations in the rules and regulations documents.

His feelings about the best way to avoid conflict over decorations echoes Donkel’s viewpoint. “Be extremely specific in the rules and regulations documents, and be very consistent in enforcing the rules,” he says. “If the rules state that there are to be no 30-foot-tall inflatable dancing disco Santas, then make sure NO one is allowed to have one.” When it comes to a decorating timetable, Sundberg finds most governing documents have a policy of 30 days prior to a designated holiday, and 30 days post-holiday for removing decorations.

While a 60 day window may make excellent sense for a major holiday, lesser celebrations like Labor Day or Memorial Day may require a tighter schedule; that's a more subjective call, and yet another issue for the board to discuss and address.

The Eye of the Beholder

Different people may have very different ideas about what's in good taste versus what's a total eyesore, but one consideration trumps aesthetics: protecting the building’s surfaces from decoration-related damage. Sundberg recommends specific approved methods for installation, and strict enforcement of those methods. “No nails or screws in siding, and the attachment application methods must be such as to not permanently damage a unit or leave unsightly hangers or marks after the decorations are removed,” he says. When the rules are clearly stated in plain language, says Sundberg, it is easier for a unit owner to understand what is expected, and equally easy for a board to identify infractions of the rules.

While the majority of folks seem to enjoy holiday decorations, some may argue that decorations are not worth the time and trouble involved, the possible damage to property, or even a lawsuit for some unintended offense. Blinking lights can be annoying, and a less than professional installation may detract from a properties’ curb appeal; for every positive, there may be a negative to be explored and addressed by the board and/or the property manager.

According to Sundberg, “This is a tough, gray area. Some people will love a giant inflatable turkey on Thanksgiving, while others, not so much. Each board must determine the limitations for their individual property, be specific with the R&R Documents, and then enforce equally as written.”

A board will also need to review any new laws, restrictions, and court rulings that may pertain to holiday decorations in their area. New rulings now allow both the American flag and the POW flag to be displayed in communities where this was not previously allowed.

Even with diligent attention to details, there is always the chance someone will not be happy with the rules and regulations set forth by the board. Some residents may find decorations gaudy and offensive, while others will find them humorous. Being both specific and consistent with a well thought out approach to holiday decorating will go a long way towards keeping harmony in the community and the happy in “Happy Holidays!”    

Anne Childers is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator.

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