Nationally over the last 25 years most new homes have been built as part of a community association, either in the form of a condo or a homeowners association, says Christopher Florio, co-chair of the community association group at Stark & Stark and immediate past president of the Community Associations Institute of NJ.

Community associations have advantages for homeowners and for the towns and cities where they are built. Local jurisdictions profit from the ratables generated by these associations without having to provide as extensive an infrastructure as they would for individual homes.

Municipalities are generally responsible for roadway systems in a neighborhood, fire hydrants that abut them, and underground water and sewage pipes. In a community association, however, where roads are private, the association pays for and maintains this infrastructure.

If the association has a condominium form of ownership, it is also responsible for repairs and maintenance of any item classified as a “common element” — detention basins, playgrounds, etc. The funds for this come from maintenance fees paid by association members, generally monthly.

Florio will present “Community Rule Book — Avoiding Fouls and Costly Penalties” at the annual CAI-NJ Conference and Expo of the New Jersey chapter of the Community Associations Institute (CAI-NJ) on Saturday, October 22. The conference runs from 7:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the New Jersey Convention & Expo Center in Edison. Other panel members include James Magid, executive director of Wentworth Property Management; Karyn Branco of Kennedy, Wronko; Frank Vespa-Papaleo of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; and Terry Kessler of Hill Wallack. Cost: $180. Call 609-588-0030 or E-mail expo@cainj.org.

Community associations are little corporations, formed under Title 15 of New Jersey’s Nonprofit Corporation Act. Florio describes some of the issues faced by community associations for which he provides guidance and, if necessary, representation in court:

#b#Noise#/b#. Sometimes community associations include high-rise buildings, where people live in very close quarters. Florio suggests it is difficult to regulate noise (and odors as well) because the issue is subjective. “At 3 a.m. a loud stereo is a problem, but what about 9 p.m.?” says Florio. Perception of the noise is at issue since one person’s hearing may be better than another’s. To raise the issue at all, a resident may need to have the noise independently corroborated by the manager or someone else.

In cases like these, whether between two homeowners or between a homeowner and the association, New Jersey law requires an alternative dispute resolution, where the association puts together a panel to hear the complaint. Typically an appointed mediator or a committee of community members will hear the alternative dispute resolution.

“It’s almost like an informal trial,” says Florio. One resident brings a complaint, the other a defense. The panel tries to mediate and come to a conclusion. If either party is not happy, it can appeal to the elected board. “We try to keep it within the association,” says Florio. “We are a private entity but almost like a mini-municipality.”

#b#Age limits#/b#. Many communities across the country are age-restricted, usually to people 55 and older. But a variety of situations can lead to younger people turning up in these developments, for longer or shorter stays. In today’s souring economy, children may come back to live with their parents — with wife and baby in tow. Or a 30-something grandchild may need a temporary place to live. Or a caregiver may move in (although some associations explicitly allow caregivers). Or suppose a 60-year-old-woman who is married to a 40-year-old man dies.

The problem for an association is that if it chooses not to enforce the age limit in too many exceptional cases, a judge may ultimately rule that, by doing so, it has lost the ability to legally discriminate. “You never know at what time you will lose the right to enforce,” says Florio. As a result, associations are treading on a thin line between being attentive to the needs of residents and protecting their own identities.

So, what to do? Although associations may ultimately allow such setups for a temporary period, at the same time they may need to press such persons to specify exactly how long they plan to stay. Says Florio: “Some rules may be hard and fast, but when you’re out in the world, they’re not, because you are dealing with people’s lives.”

#b#Service animals#/b#. Sometimes associations have governing documents specifying that absolutely no animals are allowed in the community. For the most part, Florio says, this rule is enforceable, but if someone is blind and needs a service dog, federal law gives them the right to have one. In this case, his job is to help the association’s board understand that they have to allow the service dog.

Florio grew up in Somerville, where he graduated from Immaculata High School. His father was a marketing executive for RCA, which then became General Electric, and finally Harris Semiconductors. His mother became a dental assistant when Florio was in high school. He graduated in 1982 from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a bachelor’s in finance, and in 1988 he graduated from Seton Hall University School of Law.

He started his work with community associations in 1993 when, by happenstance, a condo association with a tax appeal issue came to Stark & Stark and then invited the firm to stay on as general counsel. Today the firm has nine lawyers who work only on 250 community association clients that include condos, co-ops, and homeowners’ associations.

Florio has also been active in the Community Associations Institute of New Jersey where, after a year as president, he is now back on its legislative action committee, which is heavily involved in state government.

Florio’s job is to keep the whole picture in mind as he tries to advise his clients. He may have to gently explain to the board that, although it does not want to do something, the law may require it. Or he may just have to come up with a pragmatic solution for a problem. “We’re trying to help our clients see over the horizon,” he says.

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