Under Watch – Installing Cameras & Security Systems
From the gatehouse to the poolhouse and everywhere in between, associations are keeping an eye on their assets. Residents are increasingly interested in camera systems too. How do you manage privacy, security and liability?
Don’t even think about jumping on the front gate that encloses the condominiums of Franklin Villa, like some troublemakers did several years back. They somehow bent it into an L-shape.
“Apparently if you get enough manpower, you can do it—because they did,” says Lisa Lindsay, CMCA, AMS, who manages 236 condominium units and another 136 townhomes at two community associations in Sacramento, Calif.
In 2009, Franklin Villa deployed cameras. Board members authorized the first wave of electronic surveillance—dozens of Internet-accessible cameras and several digital video recorders (DVRs)—across the two neighborhoods at an initial cost of about $17,000.
Now, if vandalism occurs, there’s a good chance Lindsay will be able to track down the person responsible and present him or her with a repair bill. Video also is shared with local police on occasion. The cameras, meanwhile, protect staff and vendors from unfounded accusations, Lindsay says.
“We don’t have enough cameras to see everything and solve everything, but we’ve enjoyed success with what we do have,” she says. “People know we’re not sitting there watching them like Big Brother. But when we have a crime or if they need to find out if somebody was bothering their stuff, they know where to come.”
The number of electronic eyes is growing. Amid ongoing concerns about crime, more community associations are opting to install video cameras, according to industry professionals and board members.
“We’re not far from Atlantic City. The situation’s getting tough around here right now,” says Harold Hannum, president of a 500-home community association in New Jersey. “You like to be proactive.”
His board at Society Hill of Galloway II authorized spending more than $400,000 for a 300-camera network that is designed to cover every public angle of the 28-acre townhome and condominium development. DVRs will be able to store a month’s worth of footage for each camera in the event of a crime or other type of incident, such as a “slip-and-fall” injury claim, says Society Hill community manager Kim Salayi.
It’s not just associations embracing the surveillance trend. Owners of detached, single-family homes have been adding cameras to their properties. Even owners of condominium units and townhomes are seeking to place lenses on common exteriors, such as halls or doorways—the sort of request that would have been rejected outright just a few years ago.
“You’ve got some boards that are going to say no and continue to say no, and they can do that for now. But I foresee increasing pressure building on this issue because it’s so easy to install these things,” says lawyer Adrian Adams of Adams Kessler in California.
As the cost of surveillance technology decreases, professionals predict an increasing number of community associations—and owners—will join the trend.
“You hear crime is down, but people still want more security,” says Robert Browning, PCAM, RS, owner of Browning Reserve Group in Sacramento, Calif. “I think that’s why a lot of people move into associations in the first place—the perception of security and a layer of protection they may not have living out on their own.”
The relatively modest surveillance project at King City Civic Association in King City, Ore., is typical of many community associations. When the master association’s pool and fitness complex experienced some thefts a couple of years ago, elected leaders authorized spending about $5,000 for eight cameras there, says administrator J. Patrick Moore, CMCA.
Since the cameras were turned on, about the worst thing that has happened was the night two young men wandered around the poolhouse, apparently snooping around in locker rooms, while a resident was there swimming, Moore says.
Going back and looking at a surveillance image to sort things out is one thing. Preventing mischief—that’s another.
“We don’t say that we’re providing security or surveillance or anything,” Moore says. “We want to create a safe environment, but we know there are limitations.”
That’s where the lawyers usually come in. For years, they’ve been advising community associations to manage the expectations of owners where cameras—or gates and alarms, for that matter—are concerned.
“Whoever’s selling (the product) says you have a sense of security,” says Marc Markel, an attorney for Houston-based Roberts Markel Weinberg Butler Hailey and member of CAI’s College of Community Association Lawyers (CCAL). “The association, on the other hand, should say to members, ‘You have no expectation of security as a result of a gate.’ And the same thing for a camera; they really don’t do anything to protect a community. They sometimes give a false sense of security more than anything else.”
A general rule of thumb: If a community association takes more precautions than are necessary, it can create an obligation it otherwise doesn’t have.
“Boards are in an unenviable position. It may be better for an association not to do something—installing cameras—than installing them,” says George E. Nowack, founding partner of Weissman, Nowack, Curry & Wilco in Atlanta.
Nowack, also a CCAL member, has long suggested boards consider adding a “no security” amendment to their CC&Rs. It’s effectively a disclaimer that the community is not obligated to provide security, even though it may from time to time undertake precautionary measures.
“It’s a hedge,” he says.
Security consultant Chris Kinman, president of Pallasat Management in Frederick, Md., says he tells clients that success with a camera system depends on the quality of equipment purchased and the ability to use it properly.
Pallasat has installed surveillance networks at community associations, including Spring Ridge Conservancy in Frederick, Md. (see “Pool Petrol”). Systems can be had for as little as a few thousand dollars, but Kinman doesn’t recommend skimping.
“There are folks out there who don’t recognize the difference,” he says. “They only recognize the difference when a problem happens, and then they try to focus and look at what might have happened, and then they can’t make anything out. It’s kind of blurry and grainy.”
Privacy is no longer much of an issue in the discussion about surveillance. That’s because, professionals agree, legally people cannot expect it in places like parking lots, parks, along streets and sidewalks or even at the pool (locker rooms—yes, of course).
“We have these little signs that are around that say, ‘Smile, you’re on camera.’ So people should know. But they don’t always pay attention,” says Dennis Javens, CMCA, general manager of Oak Shores Community Association in Bradley, Calif.
Board members at his lakefront resort community of 665 homes approved the state-of-the-art cameras in 2010, initially at the gatehouse entrance. Javens says the setup at that spot, which includes an audio recorder, was in response to allegations that some residents or their guests were being abusive toward staff members. The tape doesn’t lie, he says.
“Ninety percent of the time, when somebody complains, I find out they caused the problem and not the staff person. That’s good for staff morale, and it shows the board of directors that the staff is not what people say they are,” Javens says.
Cameras also are used by the community’s code-enforcement officers, who are outfitted with dashboard cameras and body cameras, he says. In addition, Oak Shores has installed motion-activated “game cameras”—the infrared type used by wildlife enthusiasts—on the community’s perimeter to discourage residents from trespassing on a neighboring property.
“Let’s just say that of all the shots that are taken, probably 10 percent of them are of something that people shouldn’t be doing,” Javens says.
Currently, only Javens and certain members of his management staff have access to the real-time video displays and DVRs. Some communities contacted for this article also allow board members to view or retrieve archived video, but none of them grant direct access to regular owners or tenants who may want a peek.
Society Hill at Galloway II, the Atlantic City-area community installing cameras, won’t allow its residents to view footage. “If a crime happens at your home, we will direct you to the detective who will actually view the tape,” says Salayi, the Society Hill manager from New Jersey-based mem property management.
Some lawyers say associations would be wise to maintain tight control.
Nowack, the Atlanta attorney, doesn’t think it’s a good idea to grant broad and immediate video access to anyone, especially board members. He recommends establishing guidelines to review images—only after an incident occurs.
“What legitimate reason would a board member have to turn on the camera at the pool?” Nowack asks. “Let’s say you get somebody on the board of directors who’s got a problem, and he or she has access to the cameras in real time. There would need to be a protocol on who has access and when access is used.”
Markel, the Houston attorney, says ideally a board would turn over the responsibility of video archiving and retrieval to a qualified third party. Texas imposes licensing requirements on companies that install and maintain surveillance systems—a requirement he likes.
“Maintaining the images is their standard of care, as opposed to some manager who, really, this is like the 19th job on the list,” he says. “If the image is not available or messed up or not visible or not usable, I’d rather it be someone else’s fault. You hate to say it, but shifting risk for community associations is a top priority because they’re targets.”
Psychologist Bob Christopher, who does computerized mental health evaluations from home, has surveillance cameras installed on his detached residence in a Sparks, Nev., community association. One is tucked away under his garage overhang and another is on the back of the house, which abuts a golf course.
Because the cameras are unobtrusive, Christopher says he didn’t need to get approval from his association.
“It’s peace of mind. I have close to $2 million worth of equipment here,” he says. “My recommendation is for everyone to have one.”
Of course, not all homeowners associations will be laissez-faire where exterior cameras are concerned. Professionals say, however, there’s a good chance an owner would get permission if the cameras don’t breach architectural guidelines or intrude on a neighbors’ privacy.
Things get potentially sticky for condominiums and townhomes, where the association typically controls exterior elements. Boards may not be so willing to allow alterations. It’s not a given, however, that leaders can or should reject an owner’s request to place cameras on an outside surface, some lawyers say.
Marvin Nodiff, a CCAL member in St. Louis, says a condominium or townhome resident may have a compelling and demonstrable need for a camera.
“I would give a lot of deference to the owner who goes to the board and says, ‘I have an ex-husband or an ex-wife who’s been threatening me,’ ” Nodiff says. “Otherwise, you’re going to get into a Frances T. scenario.”
In the 1986 case Frances T. v. Village Green Owners Association, the California Supreme Court ruled board members could be held liable after a resident in the condominium was sexually assaulted. The resident, whose unit had been burglarized, installed her own exterior lighting, but the association ordered her to take it down. On the very day she complied, she was attacked and robbed.
Given the dynamics of that case, Adams says, it would be hard to deny a condominium owner’s request for an exterior camera, especially now that they are so compact and virtually undetectable. His advice: Make unit owners sign an agreement that indemnifies the association.
“My way to insulate the board is to require the recording of a covenant, whenever there’s a common element involved. We can say, ‘Look, if you’re not going to record the covenant, then the answer is no,’ ” Adams says.
At Lindsay’s Sacramento communities, board members are satisfied with the surveillance systems that have been installed, even though they aren’t infallible. Occasionally, for example, a DVR is updating when it should be recording something, she says.
“That happens, and you get irritated,” the manager says. “But then, when you go to your cameras and they perform optimally—which they do 90 percent of the time—you’re ecstatic.”