A Limit to Planning Flexibility Under the Condominium Act?

Published on: April 12, 2012

Massachusetts condominium jurisprudence typically reflects the guiding principle that the condominium statute is essentially an enabling statute, setting out a framework for the development of condominiums in the Commonwealth, while providing developers and unit owners with planning flexibility.  It is widely known that the Massachusetts Condominium Act, G. L. c. 183A, sets forth certain minimum requirements for the establishment of condominiums, but those matters that are not specifically addressed in the statute are to be worked out by the involved parties.

A recent decision from the Appellate Division of the District Court, Board of Managers of Spinnaker Island Condominium and Yacht Club v. Grobleski, 11-ADMS-40016, appears, however, to demonstrate the existence of a limit to the planning flexibility which has aided the development of condominiums in Massachusetts.

The Spinnaker Island Condominium and Yacht Club was created from a waterfront parcel of land in Hull, in 1985.  When the developers established the condominium, they submitted all of their land, which included piers and docks, to condominium status, and specified that these areas would be an exclusive common area of the condominium.  They built a marina, and sold easements to unit owners and non-unit owners alike, which allowed the various easement holders to dock boats at the marina.  The easements, by their express terms, were subject to the provisions of the condominium master deed and by-laws.

In drafting the condominium by-laws, the developers intended to establish a mechanism for efficient collection of yacht club fees due and owing from the holders of boat slip easements, which was essentially identical to the method for collecting delinquent condominium common expenses from unit owners.  Accordingly, the by-laws contain a provision which requires boat slip easement holders to pay attorney’s fees and costs incurred by the association in connection with the collection of unpaid yacht club fees.

While the District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Spinnaker Island, and ordered Grobleski to pay unpaid yacht club fees and attorney’s fees, the Appellate Division reversed, and found Grobleski’s easements are not subject to G. L. c. 183A.  The Appellate Division reasoned that the boat slips in this case are essentially parking spots for boats, and followed a line of cases in which various parking easements created at condominiums were found not to be subject to G. L. c. 183A.

Spinnaker Island argued, to no avail, that the parking easement cases were distinguishable.  In this case, the developers submitted all of the land they had, inclusive of the marina area, to condominium status, and then conveyed the boat slip easements to various grantees, subject to the master deed and by-laws.  By contrast, in the parking easement cases, the developers of those condominiums had expressly retained the parking spaces when they created the condominiums, without submitting the parking spaces to the condominium form of ownership.  In this case, the Court ruled that it did not find the lack of explicit reservation or retention language in the governing documents sufficient to separate this case from the parking cases.  This reasoning appears to undermine a condominium declarant’s ability to structure the development of a condominium project in the manner he chooses.

Since the Court ruled that the boat slip easements in this case were not subject to G. L. c. 183A, the Court found that the easement holder did not have to first satisfy a claim for common area fees before enjoying the right to challenge those fees.  Accordingly, the Appellate Division vacated the summary judgment that had entered below, and remanded the case for trial.

For any questions regarding this article please contact Rob Nislick at rnislick@meeb.com or at 781-843-5000 (x152).