HOA Rules: What You Must Know About Flag Restrictions

July 2008
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On May 28, 2008, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist became the latest politician to wade into the debate over homeowner associations' restrictions on flag displays. Crist signed a law allowing Florida homeowners to build a freestanding flagpole of 20 feet or less and fly a flag as large as 4.5 feet by 6 feet. That action ended the fight between a retired U.S. Navy officer and his association, which barred flagpoles in homeowners' yards.

Florida isn't the only state where association restrictions are butting up against homeowners' patriotism. Associations throughout the country have placed restrictions on homeowners' display of the American flag. Often, the homeowners call the local media, and the association board members end up looking like unpatriotic despots.

Why do associations even restrict flag displays? Some displays can be noisy or unattractive. Having to listen to a "talking" flag or the thump, thump, thump of a metal chain or rope against a flagpole can be an irritant for neighbors. Also, some people consider tattered flags or lights highlighting flags disrespectful. Finally, holes are often drilled to hold flag displays, and that can create water damage issues. All of those potential problems are sound reasons for associations to provide guidance to homeowners on flag displays.

Before you do, however, make sure you understand the laws governing the issue. Under the federal Freedom to Display the American Flag Act of 2005, no condo, co-op, or homeowner association can restrict its owners from displaying the U.S. flag on their property. But there are exceptions. Associations are permitted to place reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of the display to protect a "substantial" interest of the association. The bottom line? Federal law prevents associations from enacting blanket bans on flag flying but allows restrictions that are reasonable and necessary to protect owners' interests in association property.

You'll also need to research your state's law. Some have passed laws governing homeowners associations' rules on flag displays, while others have left the issue to be resolved between homeowners and their associations. Colorado's law, adopted in 2005, is typical. In Colorado, associations must allow flag displays on a unit owner's property, in a window of the owner's residence, or on a balcony adjoining the owner's property as long as the display complies with the Federal Flag Code. But associations can adopt rules restricting the placement, manner, size, and location of flags and flagpoles. Associations must also allow owners to display service member flags identifying their military service on the inside of a window or door of their unit, but associations can restrict the size and manner of the display.

Given the maze of rules governing flag displays, here are a few questions to ask yourself before enacting restrictions in your association:

1) Do we even have a problem? If you aren't currently grappling with oversized, poorly placed, or unattractive flag displays, is it worth the grief of enacting an emotion-charged rule for a problem that doesn't exist?

2) Do we know the law? If you create a flag display rule, read the entire text of both the federal flag law and you're state's law—if it has addressed the issue—so that you fully understand your rights. You can find the Federal Flag Code here.

3) What's reasonable? Though federal and some states' laws are vague, often the gist is that both associations and homeowners must be reasonable. You're probably safe if your rule isn't absolute (no flag displays) or overly restrictive (no flags bigger than six inches by two feet), and your residents are probably safe if they erect reasonably sized and tasteful displays that don't damage association property.

It's possible to handle the flag display issue without becoming public pariahs. The easiest way to do that is to ask yourself: How will our association be perceived if our rule were reported in the local paper? If you're at all unsure, rethink your rule.

For More Information

You can read the full text of the federal Freedom to Display the American Flag Act of 2005 here.

You can read the Federal Flag Code here.

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