governing documents

Creating a Homeowners Association in Oregon


Many older subdivisions have recorded CC&Rs but no homeowners association to govern the community. Who enforces the provisions of the CC&Rs?  Who maintains the common areas? Who ensures compliance with the architectural requirements? As a practical matter, it often makes sense to have an HOA handle these issues, rather than an individual owner or group of owners.

The Oregon Planned Community Act (ORS Chapter 94) contains a process for owners to use to form an HOA. The procedure applies to pre-2002 communities with shared maintenance responsibilities (private roads, perimeter fence, entrance monument) and with CC&Rs that require owners to pay assessments.

The process is started when at least 10% of the lot owners initiate the process. Once that happens, here are the following steps:

  1. Notice of an organizational meeting is sent to all lot owners in the community.

  2. The notice must include the names of the individuals initiating the process, a statement that the purpose of the meeting is to form an HOA, and a copy of the proposed articles of incorporation.

  3. In addition, the notice must state the required number of votes necessary to form the HOA. If the existing CC&Rs are silent, then at least a majority of the lot owners must vote to create the HOA.

  4. Lastly, the notice must state that the owners will vote to elect a board of directors to govern the new HOA.

  5. At the organizational meeting, a new board of directors is elected. The new board is then required to file the articles of incorporation and record any required documents in the county recording office.

Assuming the owners vote to form the HOA, all of the organizational expenses are a common expense shared by all owners.  Now, this is a simplified version of the process. The statute governing the process (ORS 94.574) is a bit more complex, and you should consult a qualified attorney before embarking on the formation of a homeowners association.

But what if the subdivision has recorded CC&Rs but no shared maintenance obligations or payment of dues? In that case, the owners must amend the CC&Rs to form an HOA. The CC&R amendment would add provisions creating the HOA and authorizing the election of a board of directors. The required vote may be high. Some CC&Rs required the approval of at least 90% of all owners. In that case, it’s critical that owners understand the benefit and value of forming an HOA.

Once the amendment is approved and recorded, the owners should incorporate as a nonprofit and file articles of incorporation with the Oregon Secretary of State. In addition, the owners should adopt bylaws. The bylaws are the operational guidelines for the new HOA and the board of directors, and should be recorded in the county recording office.

The process to form an HOA can be complicated, and as always, you are encouraged to seek competent legal advice.

Amending Governing Documents

Amending your condominium or homeowners association governing documents is no easy chore. It can be a long and costly process, and even then, you may not receive enough votes to approve the amendments. The process of amending goes like this:

1. Identify the reasons for amendments 2. Determine any statutory requirements 3. Determine voting requirements 4. Decide on the method of voting 5. Solicit owner feedback on proposed amendments 6. Conduct the vote 7. Prepare the amendments for recording 8. Sign and notarize 9. Secure any governmental approvals 10. Record the amendments with the county recorder

Here are some things to consider before embarking on an amendment project:

Identify the Reasons for the Amendments

There are many reasons to amend governing documents. Common reasons include:

1. Legislative changes 2. Ambiguous provisions 3. Outdated provisions 4. Community demographic has changed 5. Removal of “declarant” language 6. Adding or removing restrictions

It’s critical that the reasons for each amendment are conveyed to the owners. After all, most amendments require owner approval. Making a convincing case to the ownership will result in higher voter turnout and more “yes” votes.

Find out What’s Required

Most CC&R amendments require a vote of between 65%-75% of the entire ownership. Bylaw amendments typically require a majority vote of the owners. However, sometimes state law will require different approval requirements. For example, in Oregon condominiums the approval of 75% of all owners is required for any amendment related to pet restrictions or the rental or leasing of units. (ORS 100.410(4)). In Washington, a homeowners association may amend its governing documents to remove discriminatory provisions by a majority vote of just the board of directors (RCW 64.38.028)

Method of Voting

Most associations will find it impossible to approve a governing document amendment at a physical meeting of the owners. For a CC&R amendment requiring 75% approval, the chances of that many owners attending a physical meeting in person or proxy is slim. The most common method is to conduct the vote by written ballot. Better yet, some communities may conduct the vote via online ballot. This often generates the most voter turn out. For an example of an online ballot, click here.

Finalize and Record

Once the required number of votes have been received, the amendment must be prepared for signature and recording. In some cases, approval by the state or a governmental authority must be received and reflected on the amendment. The amendment should contain references to the original documents which are subject to the amendments, and must be signed and notarized. The amendments do not become effective until recorded with the county recorders office.

To learn more, check out our document amendment timeline.

Understanding Governing Document Restatements

The process of amending governing documents is no easy task. Changes to the CC&Rs typically require between 66%-75% of the owners to approve.  Bylaw amendments, on the other hand, are a little easier to modify, usually requiring a majority vote of the owners.

But suppose over the years your governing documents have been amended several times. Numerous amendments can make things complicated. When reading the CC&Rs or Bylaws, the reader must frequently refer to the amendments to confirm which sections have been modified.

“Restating” a governing document means combining the original document with all subsequent amendments. The association prepares a document incorporating all amendments and records a single “restated” version. Now, members can use and refer to a single document instead of an original and multiple separate amendments.   

For example, let’s suppose your original Bylaws were adopted in 1995. In 1998 the association (via an amendment) increased the number of directors. Then, in 2000, the members voted to change the date of the annual meeting. Two years later, another amendment was adopted increasing the quorum requirement. Lastly, a recent amendment mandated that the board of directors carry liability insurance. Reading the Bylaws now requires the reader to review each of the amendments to ensure whichever section they are reading hasn’t been modified.

Oregon and Washington both provide procedures for restating. Washington, however, only addresses the process to restate the articles of incorporation. (RCW 24.03.183).

The procedure for Oregon planned communities and condominiums is the same. The board of directors adopts a resolution to prepare, codify, and record individual amendments. This does not require a vote of the owners. At the beginning of the restated document, the board must:

1. Include a statement that the board has adopted a resolution authorizing a restatement;

2. Not include any other changes which have not been properly adopted by the membership (except for scriveners’ error or to conform with format or style);

3. Include a certification by the president and secretary that the restated document includes all previously adopted amendments;

4. Cite to the document recording numbers of the previous amendments; and

5. Record the restatement in the county records where the community is located.

If your association has adopted multiple amendments over the years, talk with a qualified attorney and consider codifying and restating your documents.

Condominium Review for Purchasers

Buying a condominium is a significant investment. Prior to purchasing, buyers receive numerous documents relating to the condition and operations of the condominium project. We will review those documents and provide an opinion on the overall health of the condominium. We will requested the following documents from the potential buyer:

  • Declaration / CC&Rs
  • Bylaws
  • Rules and Regulations
  • Meeting Minutes for the previous 3 years
  • Reserve Study
  • Maintenance Plan
  • Articles of Incorporation
  • Insurance Policy Declarations

After receiving the documents, we will provide an opinion on the following:

  • Declaration or Bylaw provisions which are outdated or contrary to state law;
  • An overview of the financial standing of the Association;
  • Potential for construction defect issues;
  • Any pending litigation;
  • Restrictions on renting or leasing of units;
  • Conflicts between rules/regulations and other governing documents;
  • Adequacy of the Association's insurance coverage; and
  • Whether the reserve account is properly funded.


Enforcement of CC&Rs

Condominium and homeowner association CC&Rs are, in many ways, similar to contracts. If one party breaches the terms of the contract, the other party may seek the help of the legal system for damages or to require the breaching party to fulfill their obligations. Most CC&Rs allow the community association to enforce the covenants and promises found in the governing documents. The association does this through its elected board of directors.  But does the association have an obligation to enforce the CC&Rs? In most cases, the answer is yes.

A careful look at the CC&Rs will determine who has enforcement authority and whether enforcement is an obligation or a right. Some governing documents require a vote of the owners prior to taking certain enforcement actions.  Other CC&Rs (where there may not be an association) require individual owners to enforce all of the provisions of the governing documents.

The question of whether or not an association may use legal proceedings to enforce its CC&Rs depends on “standing.”  Standing, in a legal sense, means that the party to the litigation has a stake or interest in the dispute, as well as the capacity to sue.  In Oregon and Washington, state law grants community associations standing and authority to enforce covenants through legal action.

Oregon law specifically authorizes community associations to initiate or intervene in matters relating to the enforcement of governing documents:

[A] homeowners association may…initiate or intervene in litigation or administrative proceedings in its own name and without joining the individual owners in the following:

      (A) Matters relating to the collection of assessments and the enforcement of governing documents[.] (ORS 94.630(e)(A))

In Washington, homeowners associations have similar authority. Unless prohibited by the governing documents, an association may:

Institute, defend, or intervene in litigation or administrative proceedings in its own name on behalf of itself or two or more owners on matters affecting the homeowners' association, but not on behalf of owners involved in disputes that are not the responsibility of the association[.] (RCW 64.38.020)

Before an association takes legal action to enforce its governing documents, ask these questions:

1. Would levying fines against a violating owner be more effective?

2. Does the cost of litigation outweigh enforcement through a lawsuit?

3. Does the association have an affirmative duty to enforce the covenant?

4. Is enforcement of the issue more appropriately handled between individual owners?

5. Is alternative dispute resolution an option to resolve the violation?

Online Voting for Community Associations

We recently concluded a membership vote to adopt an entirely new set of CC&Rs and Bylaws.  The CC&Rs require 75% of all owners to approve, and the Bylaws require 51%. With nearly 300 lots in the community, it was a high number of "yes" votes to receive.  Surprisingly, within a matter of weeks the necessary votes were received and the documents approved. The Association appointed a committee to oversee and coordinate the "governing document project." After an initial meeting to review the challenges with the original governing documents, CALAW created a first draft of the CC&Rs and Bylaws.  Those drafts were reviewed, comments were solicited, and revisions were made.  After one more round of meetings and revisions, we were ready to present the proposed documents to the owners.

First, we posted drafts of the proposed documents on the internet for owners to review and download. Shortly after the documents were provided to the owners, the first of two townhall-style meetings were held.  At the first meeting, attorney Kevin Harker reviewed each section of the CC&Rs and Bylaws, explaining the meaning of each provision and reasons for inclusion.

For the next several days after the meeting, we collected feedback from the owners. Once the owners' concerns and comments were incorporated into a new draft, a second townhall meeting was held to ensure that owners understood the importance and significance of adopting new CC&Rs and Bylaws.

Then came the voting. Owners voted through an online ballot:

Screen Shot 2015-12-05 at 5.22.38 PM

As soon as owners clicked "submit", the vote was recorded in an online spreadsheet:

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The spreadsheet contained a separate area which kept a live tally of the votes:

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With the required number of votes received, the next step was to sign and record.  Community Association Law Group uses Simplifile to upload and record documents to the county recorder's office:

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Thirty minutes later the documents were recorded with the county recorder's office:

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Once recorded, the documents were official!




Common Legal Terms in Governing Documents

Community association CC&Rs and Bylaws contain numerous legal terms.  Some of those terms have common meanings, others have very specific and legal meaning.  Here is a list of common legal terms, along with plain English definitions: Abate - To stop or diminish.

Alienation - To transfer ownership or possession of land from one person to another.  Governing documents may have a provision against “any restraints on alienation.” This can mean that the Association may not impose rental restrictions or impose criteria for buyers of lots or units.

Declarant - The individual or entity who creates a condominium or planned community.

Casualty - A disastrous occurrence due to a sudden, unexpected, or unusual cause. A “casualty” event is what triggers many insurance policies.

Condemnation - The process of taking private property for public use by a governmental body.

Common Property - Property owned or leased by the association. Usually designated on the plat and described in the Declaration.

Contribution - The right of one person who has discharged a liability to recover from another who was also liable.

Common Elements - The portions of a condominium which are jointly owned.

Cumulative Voting - The ability to cast multiple votes for the same director. Typically prohibited.

Easement - The right of use upon the property of another.

Encroachment - When land is conveyed and it is then discovered that improvements on the property are partially located on an adjacent owner’s property.

Encumbrance - Any right or interest in land, like a mortgage or lien.

Enjoin - To require someone to do something.

Enjoyment - The exercise of the right to use your property. Owners have the right to “quiet enjoyment” of their property.

Enumeration - To list or describe.

E&O - Errors and Omissions insurance. Typically called D&O—Directors and Officers.

Estoppel - When someone is prevented, by their own actions, from claiming a right to the determent of another who was entitled to rely on such conduct.  For example, if the association is aware of a violation and does not act to enforce for a significant amount of time, the association may be “estopped” from enforcement.

Fidelity Bond - An insurance policy for the theft of association funds or money.

Fiduciary - Derived from Roman law, meaning a person of trust and confidence.  Board members are fiduciaries. This means all decisions must be made in the best interests of Association and members.

Foreclosure - The process used by a mortgagor or holder of a lien to deprive an owner of property from their interests in the property.

Improvement - An addition made to property, including sheds, walkways, and utilities.

Indemnification - To restore the victim of a loss, in whole or part, by payment, repair or replacement. If a director is sued for acting in their capacity as a director, the Association typically must “indemnify” the director.  This means the association pays legal fees and the judgment.

Invitee - A person is an invitee on the land of another if they are there by invitation or authorization.

Joint and Several - The liability of two or more people who make the same promise. If a husband and wife purchase a lot in an association, both are liable for the full amount of any delinquent assessments.

Legal Description - A unique description of property that allows the property to be found and identified.

Lien - A claim on property for the payment of debt.

Metes and Bounds - The boundary lines of a piece of property, including the starting and end point.

Mortgage - An interest in property created by a written document providing security in the land in exchange for the payment of debt.

Mortgagee - Person who takes or receives a mortgage.

Nuisance - Any activity on land which is unreasonable, unwarranted or unlawful and is an annoyance or inconvenience to others.

Offset - A deduction. State law prohibits owners from claiming any offset relating to payment of assessments.

Quorum - The percentage or number of members who must be present in person or by proxy in order to hold a valid meeting and conduct business.

Right of Entry - The association’s right to enter an owner’s lot or home to remedy a violation.

Severability - Capable of being divided.

Subrogation - To substitute one person in the place of another.

Successor Unincorporated Association - If an association fails to renew its corporate status, an unincorporated association automatically exists.

Turnover - The process of transferring control of the association from the developer to the owners.

Legalese in Governing Documents

Consider the following disclaimer on a law firm’s website:

Material contained herein is not offered as legal or any other advice on any particular matter. Material included here is for informational purposes only and is not necessarily an indication of future results. Transmission of this information is not intended to create, and receipt does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship between a lawyer and the user or browser. No client or other reader should act, or refrain from acting, on the basis of any matter contain in the Law Firm Home Page without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts at circumstances at issue.

Huh? It’s difficult to read and understand.  The following disclaimer, in plain English, accomplishes the same result:

Our website is for information only. We can’t give you legal advice through our website, and we can’t guarantee you a certain result. So don’t rely on anything on this website as legal advice.

Visiting our website does not make you our client. If you have a legal problem, see a lawyer and get legal advice for your specific problem.

Lawyers are known for being verbose, using legalese, and not explaining legal concepts in a way that most clients can understand.  There are many reasons for this. One reason is tradition.  Lawyers read legalese throughout law school and believe they are obligated to follow the same style. Another reason is that some lawyers believe that if they use lots of complicated words, they will sound smart. But at the end of the day, using complicated jargon doesn’t help the reader.

Governing documents in community associations are laced with legalese. Many resolutions start with “Whereas”. What does “Whereas” mean? How does it help? And why is it necessary?  The short answer is that “Whereas” is an archaic term that many drafters believe gives a sense of authority.  It doesn’t. The use of that term is unnecessary and mucks up the document.

Here’s a paragraph taken from a community association’s enforcement resolution:

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, if proof of insurance is not provided within thirty (30) days as required above, the Association shall notify the Unit Owners they are in violation of this Resolution and, after a, hearing and an opportunity to be heard, will be subject to a fine in the amount of Fifty Dollars ($50.00) per month which will increase to $75.00 for sixty (60) days and $100.00 for ninety (90) days and continuing to increase an additional $25.00 thereafter for each additional thirty (30) days proof of insurance has not been provided to the Association pursuant to Article 8(f) of the Code of Regulations and Section 3302(a)(l 1) of the Act[.]

There are several problems with this section.  First, why is “BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED” necessary?  It’s not.  Second, how many times do you have to read the language relating to fines to actually understand the amount of the fines? Lastly, the authority cited in the final portion of the paragraph is cited twice in the resolution prior to this paragraph.  Is it necessary to cite the association’s authority to do something three separate times?

Here’s the same paragraph re-written in plain English:

1. Owners must provide proof of insurance within 30 days.  After notice of the violation and an opportunity for a hearing, the Association may fine Owners who do not provide proof of insurance. The initial fine is $50. After every 30 day period the fine will increase by $25 until proof of insurance is provided.

Much easier to read, isn’t it?

Granted, there are some legal concepts or words that have no plain English equivalent.  However, when drafting rules, regulations, and policies, consider the reader’s ability to easily comprehend and understand what you are attempting to convey.  And as always, have a qualified attorney review any governing documents prior to adoption.

Enforcement Problems

All owners within homeowner and condominium associations must comply with the governing documents.  The governing documents include the Declaration (CC&Rs), Bylaws, Articles of Incorporation, and Rules and Regulations.  It’s the obligation of the community association to enforce the governing documents when violations occur. However, there are instances when an association may lose the right to enforce provisions of the governing documents.  Court cases and statutes have evolved over the years to identify circumstances in which an association is prevented from enforcement.  Here are a few ways which  may create enforcement problems:

1. Arbitrary or Selective Enforcement

The association has an obligation to enforce all of the provisions in the governing documents equally, fairly, and consistently.  A restriction in the governing documents is arbitrarily enforced if it does not apply to all members of the association.  For example, an association in New Jersey adopted a policy of charging owners who rented their units a $225 security deposit.  The court held that such a policy was arbitrary because it created a separate class of owners who were subject to a fee above and beyond the normal monthly assessments.  Coventry Square Condo vs. Halpern.

Selective enforcement occurs when an association enforces a restriction against one owner, but not others.  Doing so may cause the association to lose its enforcement rights with respect to a particular restriction.  Each violation must be treated the same, and each owner must be subject to the same enforcement policies and procedures.

2. Waiver & Estoppel

Most states recognize the legal doctrines of waiver, estoppel and laches.  These doctrines are essentially the same, and are defenses to the enforcement of governing documents.  If an owner constructs or does something in violation of the CC&Rs, and the association fails to take enforcement action over a lengthy amount of time, the association “waives” the right to enforce and is “estopped” from taking any enforcement action.

An owner asserting any of these doctrines must show: (1) the association delayed asserting enforcement for an unreasonable length of time; (2) the association had full knowledge of all of the relevant facts; and (3) that the delay resulted in such substantial prejudice to the violating owner that it would be inequitable to allow the association to enforce.

Some guidance as to the length of time is found in a South Carolina case where a condominium association failed to enforce landscape restrictions for a period of 4 years. The court found that the Association was estopped from enforcement of the applicable provisions of the CC&Rs. Janasik v. Fairway Oaks Villas.

3. Changed Conditions or Abandonment

Over the course of decades, the aesthetics or architectural styles of the community may change.  An association in Utah (created in 1978) required all homes to be built with wood shingles.  During the next decade some owners installed roofs using materials other than wood shingles.  When the association attempted to enforce the wood shingle provision against an owner, the court found that 23 of the 81 homes in the community were not using wood shingles. As a result, that requirement had been “abandoned” and was no longer enforceable.  Fink v. Miller.

4. Statute of Limitations

Statutes of limitations are laws which prevent legal claims after a certain period of time.  There are multiple statutes of limitation for different legal claims that may arise in a community association.  Seek competent legal advice to ensure you do not lose an enforcement claim as a result of waiting too long.

The Difference Between Board Members and Officers

There is often confusion about the difference between directors and officers in condominium and homeowner associations.  Much of the confusion stems from the business world, where typically the board members of a corporation are different individuals than the officers.  For example, IBM has 13 individuals on its board of directors, and nearly 20 officers--all different individuals. In community associations, however, the individual board members are usually the same individuals who serve as officers.  There are distinctions between the roles.

First, board members are almost always elected by a vote of the association's owners.  And (usually) may only be removed or recalled by a vote of the owners.  Officers, on the other hand, are typically elected or appointed by the board members, without a vote and without the input of the ownership.  Most governing documents provide that officers can be removed by a majority vote of the board members--without a vote of the ownership.

You may have heard that the chair of the association only votes in the event of a tie.  This is true--especially in the corporate world.  However, at an association board meeting, the board members are voting in their capacity as board members, not in their capacity as officers.  Assuming the chair of the association is also a board member, the chair has a duty to vote!

Lastly, many governing documents outline specific duties of board members and officers.  Review those provisions carefully and look for differences between the roles.

[As always, your association's governing documents may have provisions which are different than the general information provided above.  Consult legal counsel if questions arise.]

Renters and Rental Amendments

There are usually three types of occupants in condominium or homeowner associations:

1. Owners - motivated to maintain value and foster relationships

2. Investors - motivated by profit; usually less interested in quality of community

3. Renters - often view community association living as apartment living

The term “renters” often carries a stigma in condominium and homeowner associations. Not all renters are bad (and not all owners are good). If renters are a problem in your community, your best bet is to deal with the behavior rather than attempting to ban or limit rentals. If renters are causing parking issues, adopt a parking resolution. If renters are causing noise, enforce the noise or nuisance provisions in your governing documents.

In some cases, adopting a rental amendment makes sense. For example, prospective buyers in community associations may find it difficult to secure financing if the number of rentals is too high.

Adopting a rental amendment is no easy task. In most cases, at least 75% of the ownership must vote “yes” on the amendment. Grandfathering existing rentals will often increase the amount of yes votes. In addition, a good explanation to the ownership about why the board is proposing the amendment and the benefits to the community will go a long way in receiving support for the amendment. Have a lawyer draft or review any proposed amendment to your governing documents.

Here are some things to consider when contemplating a rental amendment:

1. Minimum lease periods - typically a 30 day minimum.

2. Grandfathering existing rentals - any owner renting their unit or lot when the amendment becomes effective is exempt from the rental cap unless that owner sells or transfers their interest in the property.

3. Tenants must receive governing documents - consider requiring owners to put a provision in the lease agreement mandating that tenants receive copies of the association’s governing documents.

4. Contact information - owners should be obligated to provide contact information of each tenant to the association or management company.

5. Hardship provision - think about including a hardship provision allowing an owner to rent their property in excess of the rental cap if circumstances require. A good example of a hardship is military service.

Governing Document Primer - Condominiums and HOAs

The term “governing documents” refers to a host of documents, some of which are recorded, some which are filed with the state, and others are merely distributed to owners. In general, governing documents include: the Declaration/CC&Rs, Bylaws, Plat, Articles of Incorporation, and Rules/Regulations/Resolutions. Understand that there is a hierarchy to these documents. For example, the board cannot adopt a rule or regulation that conflicts with provisions in the CC&Rs. See the attached charts to better understand the hierarchy:



Let’s discuss each:

1. Plat

The plat map is the graphical depiction of the community. For planned community subdivisions, the plat is a birds-eye view of lot lines, easements, roads, and other property interests. Condominium plats are slightly different. Condo plats include the elevation drawings of the structures, and show the boundaries between the units, limited common elements, and general common elements. Often, plats will have notations regarding ownership of common areas, maintenance obligations, and references to the CC&Rs. Plats are recorded with the county recorders office.

2. Declaration/CC&Rs

Think of the CC&Rs as the constitution of the community. When you purchase property in a community association, you do so subject to the conditions in the CC&Rs and the other governing documents. The CC&Rs usually include: a description of the property, what you can and can’t do on your lot or on common property, the authority to assess regular dues, provisions related to insurance, and who is to maintain, repair and replace property throughout the community. Like the plat, CC&Rs are also recorded with the county recorder.

3. Articles of Incorporation

This document establishes the corporate structure for the community association. Typically, the association incorporates as a nonprofit corporation. Incorporation can provide protection against liability, allow the association to hold title to property, and simplify the process of securing insurance policies. Articles of incorporation are filed with the secretary of state.

4. Bylaws

The bylaws are the operating guidelines for the association and typically include: meeting requirements, quorum requirements, number of officers and directors, and provisions governing books and records. Usually, the bylaws are recorded in the county recorders office.

5. Rules/Regulations/Resolutions

This is a broad category, and refers to those documents that are typically adopted by the board of directors without a vote of the owners (note: some associations may have owner approval requirements). Examples include: architectural guidelines, collections resolutions, enforcement procedures, and house rules. These documents are not recorded, which is why it is critical that owners receive and are on notice of these documents. Keep resolutions simple, be sure to cite to the authority for adopting the rule or regulation, and make sure owners know the reasons for adoption.

The Importance of the Plat Map

The significance of the plat map is often overlooked in community associations.  Put simply, the plat is a graphical depiction of lot boundaries, easements and other ownership interests.  Here's an example: Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 6.26.18 PM

This is a plat map for a planned unit development subdivision. Condominium plats are slightly different, and include building elevations, unit boundaries, and common elements locations.

Notations on plats are important, too.  Examples of notations include: maintenance obligations, common area ownership, and utility company easements.  These notations are just as significant and important as provisions in your CC&Rs.

Now that you know how important your plat map is, you may be wondering how counties or municipalities keep track of who owns what and where property is located.  Plats contain very specific location information, starting with township, then range, and then section, like this:

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We can tell that the subdivision is located in the east 1/2 of Section 28, Township 1S, Range 1E, W.M. (Willamette Meridian).  This coordinate system is attributed to Thomas Jefferson, and was formalized in the Land Ordinance Act of 1785.  The Act called for the creation of townships 6 miles by 6 miles, with 36 square sections containing 640 acres.  Every township referenced a meridian, like the image above, which references the Willamette Meridian.

If you don't have a copy of your plat, many county recorder or survey offices provide the files online.  Here are links to access your plat map in the tri-county area:

Multnomah County:

Washington County:

Clackamas County: