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Clear Lake Riviera Community Association v. Cramer

February 26, 2010

CLEAR LAKE RIVIERA COMMUNITY ASSOCIATION, PLAINTIFF AND RESPONDENT,
v.
ROBERT CRAMER ET AL., DEFENDANTS AND APPELLANTS.



(Lake County Super. Ct. No. CV 402997) Trial Judge:Hon. Robert L. Crone, Jr., Retired judge of the Lake Superior Court, assigned by the Chief Justice pursuant to article VI, section 6 of the California Constitution.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Margulies, Acting P.J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

Plaintiff Clear Lake Riviera Community Association (Association) regulates new construction within a common interest development. Defendants Robert and Catherine Cramer (the Cramers) purchased a lot within the development and drew up plans to build a house. In approving their plans, the Association committee with responsibility for plan review applied an Association guideline that limited the height of homes within the development. Because the Cramers' home was located on a sloping lot, compliance with the height guideline depended not only on the height of the structure itself but also its location on the lot.

During construction, it was called to the attention of defendant Robert Cramer (Cramer) that the location he selected for the home would result in a violation of the height guideline, but he disregarded the warnings. When the resulting home exceeded the height guideline by nine feet, the Association filed suit to abate the violation. Finding the Cramers knowingly violated the height guideline, the trial court ordered them to bring their home into compliance. They contend the height regulation was unenforceable because the Association failed to prove it had been properly adopted and the trial court abused its discretion in awarding injunctive relief rather than damages. We affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

The Association is a nonprofit corporation organized under the Davis-Stirling Common Interest Development Act (Civ. Code, § 1350 et seq.) to manage Clear Lake Riviera (Riviera), a common interest development located in Lake County. In 1992, the Association recorded an amended declaration of covenants, conditions, and restrictions (declaration) governing Riviera. Among other measures, the declaration established an Architectural Control and Planning Committee (committee), consisting of three members appointed by the board of directors of the Association (Board). The committee was charged with reviewing the plans for any improvements contemplated within Riviera to ensure they complied with the requirements of the declaration and were "in harmony with the general surroundings of such lot or with the adjacent buildings or structures." In addition, the committee was empowered to enact height restrictions for buildings within Riviera, as well as other restrictions on the size and appearance of Riviera construction. The declaration stated that, once plans had been approved by the committee, "[a]ctual construction of any improvements . . . must be in strict conformity with said plans."

The committee maintained a set of guidelines that was given to persons who planned to build in Riviera, along with a copy of the Association bylaws and a checklist for application processing. The guidelines described the process of plan approval and contained various substantive regulations governing new construction. Among the guidelines was one limiting the height of structures to a maximum of 17 feet above street level or the "control point" of the lot. For a sloping lot, the control point was the elevation at the center of the lot. Although there was no evidence when and how this guideline was enacted, it had been applied by the committee since at least 1995.

In March 2005, the Cramers submitted to the committee plans for a home they hoped to construct in Riviera. Rather than retain a general contractor, Cramer intended to act as his own builder. The Cramers' plans were approved by the committee in April. Beneath the approval stamp on each page of the plans, the committee had printed, "structure height not to exceed 17 feet from control point of lot." Cramer was aware of the notation and knew the Association's guidelines imposed the height restriction. In a plot plan submitted with his application and approved by the committee, Cramer had placed an asterisk in the middle of the lot map and written "Control Point" and "" next to the asterisk.

The evidence was in dispute at trial regarding the exact information and warnings given to Cramer about his compliance with the height restriction. A member of the committee, Curtis Winchester, testified he had discussed lot setbacks and application of the Association's height restriction with Cramer even before his plans were submitted to the committee. Winchester explained to Cramer that he and the committee would have to agree on the location of the lot's control point before the application could be approved and a height variance was unlikely because there were many homes within Riviera on similar upslope lots that complied with the height restriction. Winchester told Cramer it would be necessary to remove a substantial amount of soil from the lot to meet the height restriction, given the particular house design the Cramers had chosen, and Cramer agreed to do the necessary grading of the property.

Cramer acknowledged he was aware of the height guideline, but he testified he was confused about the concept of "control point" and its measurement and had no knowledge or experience in determining the elevation of buildings. He never personally did the measurements necessary to determine how high his house was. Cramer said he relied on his grading contractor to determine compliance with the height requirement and, in any event, could not have placed the home's foundation any lower because the grading contractor ran into rock that prevented further excavation.*fn1

In June or early July 2005, after Cramer had completed grading and installed the wooden forms for his foundation, the committee met with him and two persons working with him to discuss application of the height restriction. The meeting occurred as a result of the complaint of a neighboring homeowner who was concerned from the location of the Cramers' foundation forms that the resulting house would be too tall.

Winchester testified the committee told Cramer at the meeting that if he chose to build at the location of his foundation forms, the planned house would have to be altered considerably to meet height requirements, and they recommended further grading to lower the foundation. At the close of the meeting, Winchester testified, Cramer was noncommittal, but he did not indicate any reservations about complying with the height guideline.

Cramer and one of his contractors disputed this account of the meeting. According to these witnesses, the committee dismissed the neighbor's complaint and told Cramer there was no problem with his construction. As a result of the committee's apparent approval, Cramer testified, he decided soon after to pour the foundation concrete. Cramer denied ever being warned by a committee member prior to the pouring of his foundation that the house would be too high.

In mid-July, the committee sent the Cramers a notice stating that their house appeared to depart from the approved plans and noting the completed building would violate the height restriction in the guidelines. The form requested the Cramers to notify the committee if they could not comply, but they did not do so. The committee sent a similar form in September, after the foundation was poured but before the walls were erected.

It was undisputed that when the Cramers' house was finished, it differed significantly from the house depicted in the approved plans, with one wall being considerably higher and more massive than shown on the plans. The house exceeded the 17-foot height restriction by nine feet and impinged severely on the views of at least two neighboring homes. In November, after the home was complete, the Cramers unsuccessfully requested a variance from the committee that would have ratified their violation of the height restriction.

In June 2006, the Association filed an action against the Cramers seeking a declaration they were in violation of the guidelines and the approved construction plans, an injunction requiring compliance, and monetary damages. Following a bench trial, the court found for the Association in a statement of decision. The court rejected the Cramers' various arguments that the height restriction was invalid or unenforceable, found the Cramers' home to be nine feet higher than permitted under the guidelines, and concluded Cramer knowingly built the home in violation of the height guideline. ...


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