TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey's Supreme Court yesterday began considering whether people give up some rights, such as posting a political sign in their yard, when they move into a housing development that bans such a practice.
The case being argued before the state high court involves residents of the Twin Rivers housing development in East Windsor who objected to some of the regulations set by their homeowners association.
A ruling in the case could affect the more than 1 million New Jersey residents, or nearly 40% of all private homeowners, who live in planned communities and are under homeowners-association rules. Some 57 million Americans live in such planned communities.
Lawyers for the residents said the New Jersey Supreme Court was the highest court in the U.S. to hear arguments challenging the authority of homeowners associations.
The Twin Rivers residents who sued object to restrictions on the display of political signs, being charged high fees to use the association's community room, and the refusal by the association to allow dissenters' views in the community newspaper.
However, Ernie Landante, a spokesman for the Community Associations Institute, said the newspaper published all of the dissenters' letters except one, which was returned to the sender because it contained defamatory language.
The plaintiffs contend the association should be treated like any other government entity, because it can issue fines and place liens against homes.
"It's too much power in the hands of too few people," said Dianne McCarthy, 67, one of the plaintiffs and a former resident of the community. Six years ago, after McCarthy tried to run for the association board and it banned political yard signs, she and other residents headed to court.
The homeowners association is responsible for facets of life from trash collection to maintaining ball fields at the central New Jersey community that covers about 1 square mile.
The association contends the rules are needed to maintain aesthetics and order in the community. Its lawyers claim that the community is private and can have its own rules.
But the residents, who first sued six years ago and are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, say the First Amendment affords them the right put up yard signs as a form of free speech. They also say that since homeowners essentially pay for the association's newsletter through their assessments, they should be allowed express their views in it.
Initially, a state judge backed the homeowners association, ruling that people who bought homes in Twin Rivers knew the rules and had to abide by them. But in February a three-judge appeals panel sided with the residents who sued, ruling in Committee for a
Better Twin Rivers v. Twin Rivers Homeowners’ Association that people in the community are still protected by the state constitution.
Yesterday, ACLU attorney Frank Askin told the high court that the homeowners association was run like a political fiefdom, where the president was able to use the association newsletter to criticize residents who complained about the regulations. Askin also said the residents were charged an exorbitant fee to use a community room for a public meeting.
"The association fees being paid for by all residents are being used to pay for partisan purposes," Askin told the court.
But several justices were skeptical about attempts to regulate editorial fairness, concerned that it could violate free-press tenets.
"You are asking us to judge the content of this newsletter, to measure the content and decide its appropriateness and political correctness," said Justice Roberto A. Rivera-Soto. "I find it ironic if you are advancing that point."
Twin Rivers Association President Scott Pohl said after the hearing that changing the association rules falls to the residents of the community, who can vote on them and "haven't felt the need to change them."
Twin Rivers is a great place to live, he added. "We're a community of 10,000 being sued by five people. So what does that tell you?"