HOA to homeowners who lost everything in Gatlinburg wildfires: Pay up

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Some property owners in Gatlinburg’s Chalet Village, which was hit hard by November’s wildfire, say they’re getting hit again by the development’s homeowners’ association: assessed fees on properties that burned down.

Bruce Brock’s house burned at Christmas 2011, and he’d been working on it ever since, he said.

“We just finished our house three weeks before the (November 2016) fire,” Brock said. Now it’s gone again.

“We lost everything. That was our permanent residence,” he said. “Then we got a bill: $290.”

Brock said he had always paid what the HOA asked, but saw no benefit.

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“I think the whole thing should be done away with. It’s a joke,” he said. He alleges property owners weren’t alerted to the board meetings at which they might seek answers or changes.

“We would receive the notification the day after, or a week after, they would have a meeting,” Brock said. That, and other lapses, should release landowners from responsibility for HOA fees, he says a lawyer has advised.

“The attorney told me when you don’t follow all the rules, then none of the rules apply,” Brock said.

Lloyd Martin owned a cabin in Chalet Village for 24 years.

 

“We were told when we bought it, yeah, there was a usage fee for the facilities,” he said.

Martin’s cabin burned in November’s fire. He plans to rebuild next year, but thinks it’s unfair that owners of destroyed houses, who obviously aren’t using the recreation facilities, should have to pay while the assessment is optional for others. For many years Martin rented out his cabin, and only his tenants used the recreation areas; it wasn’t until he began living there himself that he looked more closely at the HOA agreement.

There are 678 lots in North Chalet Village, of which about 560 have – or had – houses, Martin said. Of those lots with houses, the assessment is only mandatory for about 340, written into their deeds, he said. Even among the mandatory fees, prices vary – but depending on when people signed up, not how many people are likely to use the facilities, Martin said.

Multiple recent calls to the HOA office, as concerns began growing among neighbors, were not answered or returned. But a few months ago Tamie Sentz, manager of the Ski Chalet Village Owners’ Club, as the HOA is officially known, spoke to a USA TODAY Network -  Tennessee reporter. She said the assessment on some lots is optional unless residents want to use recreation facilities, while it is mandatory on others.

"It's the land," Sentz said. "It's not the home on it, it's the land that's assessed."

That's why Chalet Village still expects people to pay even though they lost houses, according to Sentz. All the money goes toward managing the association's three recreational facilities, which include swimming pools, she said.

Regarding Chalet Village property owners who said they didn't know about the HOA fees, Sentz said they should have asked those questions when they signed their papers.

Stephanie and Donald Isakson had a vacation and rental cabin in Chalet Village North for about five years. The Isaksons always have paid the HOA membership fee of $15, and the annual assessment of $291, Stephanie Isakson said.

Their cabin burned down in November, like many others.

“We have a cleared lot now,” she said. But she still got a bill for the annual assessment, due by March 31; she isn’t certain whether it’s written into her deed. Isakson said she’s not sure why the HOA wants money from people whose property in Chalet Village is obviously unusable.

She provided a letter which accompanied the bill: “Please understand that this letter is difficult to send knowing and understanding the losses you all have experienced,” it says. “However, we are bound by the covenants and restrictions in good times and bad. Looking long term, when your homes are rebuilt or you prepare to sell your properties, it is important that the facilities of Chalet Village are ready and available to continue to add value to your investments. Unfortunately, we are not able to achieve this without collecting the assessments necessary to operate.”

Not all of Chalet Village’s recreation facilities will be open this year, regardless of payment. The letter says one pool in the south section will be open as usual, and one more if there is enough demand; but the northern pools will be closed for “necessary repairs and improvements.”

The letter urges owners who lost houses in the fire to tack the HOA bill onto their insurance claims. But most of those claims have long since been filed, Isakson said.

Michael Luciano’s cabin survived the fire, and the HOA assessment isn’t mandatory on his property. He doesn’t use the pool, so he doesn’t pay for it, he said. Even so, he has long objected to the HOA’s practices, wondering what those assessments have been spent on for the last few decades.

Luciano believes buyers in Chalet Village are pressed to agree to the assessment whether the requirement is in their deeds or not. He is urging property owners to pay the $15 membership fee and vote for change at the HOA’s upcoming annual meeting.

The association’s voting members are supposed to be able to alter the rules at such meetings, Martin said. He proposes all such assessments should be voluntary, with a per-day rate for people who only use the recreation areas occasionally; different rates for resident owners and rental owners; and an extra $100 for each bedroom over four. He has filed that idea to be discussed at the upcoming HOA annual meeting, scheduled for 10 a.m. April 29, at the south clubhouse.

“Where it’s going to go from there, I don’t know,” Martin said.

Martin provided a copy of the development’s 1976 building standards, and HOA bylaws dated May 14, 1983. The building standards say the annual assessment can be spent “for the sole purposes of operating, maintaining, and funding a replacement reserve account for the recreational buildings, improvements and land” of Chalet Village’s recreation areas.

The $15 annual membership fee entitles all owners to one vote in association meetings, even if they own multiple properties. A majority of the members present at annual meetings counts as a quorum for most actions, however few may actually attend.

Contributing: Travis Dorman

(© 2017 Knoxville News-Sentinel)


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