How to Change Covenants

by jessica
(canton ga)

Visitor Question: We live in an enclave of 8 homes with a loosely created covenant system from 1995 when the homes were built. Many of the covenants are not currently being followed (chickens, sheds, junk cars on property, additions to homes, none of which seem to bother anyone). However we happen to live right next to people that would enforce them on others, regardless of the fact that they are not adhering several themselves.

We are wanting to purchase goats for pleasure and weed control. (We live on 2 acres.) It states in the covenants that livestock or poultry are not permitted; however 3 neighbors currently have chickens. We want purchase pygmy goats which in several cities/counties are not even classified as livestock but as pleasure pets. The county is willing to work with us and change the language but stated we must address the covenants first.

A few of us are considering changing the covenants by going door to door to ask people to sign a petition/addendum. What is required in order to change these 21 yr old covenants?
Thank you!

Editors Response: We are going to focus on the three big questions that are implied here, since those questions are relevant to many people, judging by our mail. You seem to have the specific question of the pygmy goats well in hand.

First and foremost, the question is how to change the covenants. The answer to all of our visitors who ask variations of this question is that no one can know this without (1) reviewing the specific document that sets up the covenants or deed restrictions, and (2) reviewing applicable state law.

To answer these questions, you need an attorney licensed to practice in your state. Ideally if you can find the attorney who wrote the covenants, that would be splendid. If not, any attorney who works with real estate will be fine.

Now many people can predict the answer to the first question by reading the document that contains the covenants. Often that will set forth the process by which the covenants can be changed. (It is also possible that the document containing the covenants does not address how they can be changed, in which case you need to go directly to an attorney.)

You might have to have all eight of you agree on the change. You may be fine if six of the eight of you agree. Or you might have to find the person who set up the covenants and get that person, and/or his or her heirs, to agree. In any case, after you have informal agreement, you should have an attorney draft up the actual language.

The second big question that you raise is what happens when covenants are not enforced or abided by. It sounds as though you are a small group and therefore don't have a homeowner's association or some other mechanism to enforce the covenants. The only way to enforce covenants in this situation is to sue in court, asking a judge for an injunction to require correction of the situation that violates the covenants.

In your case, why not use your desire to change the covenants to allow pygmy goats as a catalyst for you and your neighbors coming together to decide on covenants that you can agree upon? Maybe only most of you agree, but if you have a consensus, take this opportunity to avoid conflict situations in the future.

The third major point is the futility of multiple covenants with no enforcement mechanism. Land owners, please think carefully about whether you want to prescribe a lengthy set of regulations that you won't be around to see enforced. Sometimes attorneys and others advise that covenants will help sell real estate in a development, and they might, but you are creating future headaches such as this one. Land owners, how about asking your local government to create proper regulations so that future property owners can simply complain to the government and request code enforcement if obnoxious situations arise?

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