Court ruling makes it easier for Sudden Valley to raise dues

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 30, 2013 

SUDDEN VALLEY — A Whatcom County Superior Court judge rejected the Sudden Valley Community Association’s own rules for setting dues, removing a barrier to dues increases.

The ruling, issued by Judge Ira Uhrig on April 17, puts the decision to raise dues squarely in the hands of the association’s board of directors. The judge ruled that state law trumps the bylaws of a homeowners association. The bylaws set the bar high for dues increases, requiring 60 percent voter approval among property owners.

The immediate impact of the decision is unclear because the current board, the defendant in the case, wants to contain dues increases and keep them affordable. The lawsuit was brought by representatives of an opposing faction that ran the board from 2006 to 2011 and enacted a 30 percent dues increase in 2011, to about $950 for developed lots, saying the increase was allowed by state law.

In the same vote in late 2011, a new group took control of the board. The new members, many of whom are still in power today, said the dues increase violated the bylaws, and they rescinded the increase.

Sudden Valley residents sympathetic with the plaintiffs in the case said no more than five dues increases had passed over the past three or four decades. Buildings, culverts and a dam are in disrepair, they said.

Voters overwhelmingly approved a $60 annual dues increase in November, to $777.56 for developed lots and $672.88 for undeveloped lots. Curt Casey, one of three plaintiffs who brought the case against the association, said the ruling increases the likelihood that more dues increases will pass, and needed fixes will happen sooner.

“It’s incumbent upon the members to elect an appropriate board of directors … to maintain the valley,” Casey said in a phone interview Tuesday, April 30. “I don’t want to speculate on what the board will do or won’t do.”

One of the current board members is Scott Wagter, who was board president in October. He said at the time that the board made staff cuts but was keeping up with maintenance. Current board President Laurence Brown declined to comment on the court case Monday, April 29, saying the board would meet in a closed-door session Thursday, May 2, to discuss the decision. The board could appeal the ruling.

The court ruling said dues may not be decided by a majority of participating voters but must be determined according to state law: A dues increase is defeated only if a majority of all eligible voters reject it.

With 3,208 lots in Sudden Valley, that would require 1,605 no votes. Property owners get one vote for every lot they own. On the most recent ballot, only 1,256 votes were cast.

Factions within this private community of 6,400 on Lake Whatcom have been in a tug-of-war for years. Plaintiffs who were interviewed wanted to be clear that they were not gloating about their victory in court, especially since the board could challenge it.

“Some in Sudden Valley are saying that the recent court order will allow the board to run amok and our dues will go up. This is not the case,” the plaintiffs posted Monday on a website called Sudden Valley Concerned Owners. “The members still possess the power to undertake the effort to remove those board members failing to act in the best interests of the community.”

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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